May 20, 2008

Linux is in Bed with Mom

Linux may not be steamrolling the desktop operating system market so far this year, but Linux is definitely making strides in other areas. Linux is quickly proving to be an adaptable platform, useful in many non-standard applications.

Since I started with Linux I have never felt it was ready for the average home user. Not because Linux is complicated or overbearing, but because Microsoft already dominates the home user and the way they think. The one thing Linux does not want to be, is Microsoft. Until that mentality fades, Microsoft will hold their market dominance. Even with bad review after bad review of Windows Vista, it is still a lot more likely to actually work for the average computer user than Linux.

Also, I am starting to believe that Linux doesn't fit the role of a Windows replacement, no matter how many Steve Ballmer jokes the Linux crowd can think up. Linux, due to it's open nature, will never be consistent enough across the board to please hardware and software vendors, along with the average user. Linux, as a day-to-day operating system works only under the careful watch of professional IT staff. Linux is a great business solution.

So, where does this leave Linux in the home? The answer: embedded. Linux is already dominating the wireless device market. Plus, it is creeping into living rooms via video game consoles and various entertainment devices. Most importantly, its invisible to the end user.

Linux is at its best when the user doesn't even know they are using it.

To illustrate the power of Linux as an embedded platform, I present: Splashtop. Soon to be pre-installed on all Asus motherboards. But what is Splashtop?

Simply put, Splashtop, is a highly customized version of Linux, embedded via flash memory on the motherboard and acts as a quasi-bootloader. Instead of booting directly into the BIOS setup or a desktop operating system, the computer boots into Splashtop, a miniature-sized operating system. Splashtop gives access to various programs, such as Firefox for Internet surfing, BIOS/CMOS setup tools, and e-mail.

The best part? Splashtop takes approximately five seconds to boot up. This means that users no longer need to leave their computers logged in, powered up, and in sleep mode if they just use it for basic access. Also of note, no hard drive access is required, pushing the energy efficiency of short, quick boot-ups even further.

Also, with no hard drives in use, there is nothing being accessed on the main system and nothing to be compromised while surfing or checking e-mail. Not to mention, hard drives are notoriously power hungry.

Plus, being built into the motherboard, it pretty much ensures that Splashtop will work with whatever hardware the computer uses.

Embedded Linux is not the only place Linux is starting to appear. Linux is also starting to show up in tandem of Windows, and in more forms than just virtualization through VMWare or Xen. Ulteo, a Linux-based desktop product, fits right on top of various Windows installs and allows Linux to be seamlessly used in conjunction with Windows. From Slashdot:
Ulteo today unveiled their Virtual Desktop which is a free, full Linux desktop that runs seamlessly on Windows. It's interesting because it's not running under Xen or VMWare, but instead uses the coLinux patch, which they claim allows the system to achieve 'great performance, close to a native installation on the PC.' No need to reboot the system anymore to switch from Windows to Linux."
Some might question the value of such a program. Why install one operating system to just install another on top of it? It is a valid point, and one I can't really answer. However, I can state that Windows is not going anywhere soon and it will remain a fact of life for the computer industry for some time. As stated, Linux just is not in a position to take over the market. The current open, Linux distribution system can not support the number of users that Microsoft currently has without some form of compensation outside of donations. At some point, Linux has to adjust.

That does not mean Linux won't remain a viable desktop and server operating system, but the focus may start to shift away from those two applications. I don't have numbers currently on the number of Linux installs worldwide, but if Splashtop starts shipping on one million+ motherboards a month, it is only a matter of time before embedded Linux, outside of the portable device market, far outweighs that of the full-featured Linux distributions.

Ten years from now we may all wonder how we got by without a Splashtop-type startup operating system and while Linux may not be sleeping with our mothers quite yet, Linux is everywhere. Users just may not know it and thats a good thing. The only question that remains; can it run World of Warcraft?