Signposts of GNU/Linux Growth in 2007, Part 1

Monday Dec 31st 2007 by Roy Schestowitz
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From supercomputers to mobile phones to the desktop, Linux was on the march in 2007.

It is sometimes forgotten that GNU/Linux is more than just a desktop operating system. Linux, being a well-engineered kernel, is used extensively and also funded for its important role in several different areas of computing. One needs to look for evidence of growth not only in desktops. Judgment must be based on multiple areas where GNU/Linux gains traction. This ought to cover some disruptive trends that are yet to be reckoned with.

As time goes by, appliances might inherit the important role of traditional desktops. Mobile and ultra-mobile devices could gradually replace laptops and servers to become more predominant owing to Web-based software, which also moves storage toward the back end. Let's explore how GNU/Linux fits this broader vision and discover just how ubiquitous it is, with growth consistently on the upside.

Supercomputers

In supercomputing, GNU/Linux has become extremely popular and sometimes irreplaceable. Its selection is a matter of scalability and reliability, not just cost. Among the world's top computers, taking virtualization into account as well, Linux climbed from 86% installed base in 2006 up to 91% at the end of 2007. This relative growth in 2007 might not seem great, but it comes to show that GNU/Linux still tightens its grip on this domain, rather than loosen any. Inertia is likely to ensure that such domination is maintained, if not further expanded in years to come.

In the past couple of years, SGI, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft have all attempted to gain or regain ground in supercomputing. SGI conceded UNIX in favor of GNU/Linux, whereas Microsoft and Sun stuck to their guns and they have yet to demonstrate actual growth with Windows and Solaris, respectively. Based on the world's top 500 computers, their ambitions led to very limited success. IBM's AIX holds on to a share of 4.8%, Sun's Solaris is at 0.4% and Mac OS X maintains 0.4%. GNU/Linux is still seen as a de facto platform in this domain. Faith in this platform is increasing owing to maturity and its hard-earned reputation.

Mobile Phones

EDN highlighted the success of Linux in mobile phones last year. It pointed to exceptionally high popularity in Asia thanks to NEC, Panasonic, Motorola and others. In 2006, Linux was said to have powered approximately a quarter of all feature phones shipped in the previous year, according to market analysts cited by Webb. Growth seems to have been persistent since then, but there was one barrier that was finally passed in 2007.

Linux-powered handsets are said to be suffering from fragmentation in their development, but the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum has created a formal liaison and a technical framework for cooperation. Google's Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) emerged later in the year 2007 and it can exist in a state of collaboration and harmonize with LiPS. OMA develops open specifications for content and services, whereas LiMO concentrates on specifications and standards for these services. At the center of OMA you will find Android, which is a Linux/Java-based stack for developers. It is a common framework that leads to greater centralization, essentially replacing that notorious fragmentation with unification.

All in all, in the mobile space, growth continued at a rapid pace, especially in Asia. The effect of LiMO and Google's Android is to be seen in years to come. Google has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its endeavors in the mobile space, the company's spectrum-related investments aside. We shall see the first product that uses Android in the first quarter of next year. Many large companies will be actively involved and HTC might lead the way.

Desktops

On the desktop, the outlook seems increasingly bright. Two independent user surveys, one from LinuxDesktop.com and another from the Linux Foundation, saw participation more than doubling in just one year. This indicates strong growth that cannot normally be measured. When it comes to free software, obtaining absolute numbers is different from studying trends. If you extrapolate these figures, as some industry watchers have already done, then it's almost safe to assume that the presence of GNU/Linux on the desktop has doubled in the past year.

In 2007, several major OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) such as Dell, Acer, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Epson have all begun offering GNU/Linux options for PCs that they stock. Other companies such as Toshiba have spoken in the press about the possibility of offering such choice in the near future.

Preinstalled GNU/Linux became more commonplace among smaller computer shops too. Some attribute this trend to Windows Vista backlash and -- in particular -- its steep hardware requirements that elevate cost. It appears like only a matter of time before offering GNU/Linux as an affordable option becomes the norm everywhere. With availability, a system that was once perceived as 'exotic' or a hobbyist's choice suddenly becomes mainstream.

Acceptance of GNU/Linux by the world's largest OEMs was only the beginning. Large retailers such as Tesco and Wal-Mart began offering cheaper GNU/Linux computers, adding more choice to past offerings that were less attractive, scarcely advertised, lacked support, and suffered from limited availability.

Wal-Mart's offer of the Everex gPC was a success. They sold out within a couple of weeks and this was not an isolated incident. Dell's sales figures of GNU/Linux PCs exceeded the company's initial expectations as well, so they expanded their offers to more models and brought GNU/Linux options to more parts of the world. 2007 will be remembered as the year when GNU/Linux became not only available, but also properly preinstalled on desktops and laptops by the world's largest companies.

Low-end Laptops and Tablets

In recent months, a wave of highly anticipated laptops finally arrived. Some insist on calling them gadgets because they are on the verge of being intuitive and affordable enough to suit every person and even be sold over the counter just like any consumable electronic item. These laptops are small and their use of GNU/Linux permits them to use modest hardware that is inexpensive. The Linux-based Eee PC is probably the most recent example.

It was only a couple of months ago that ASUSTek introduced the Eee PC, whose sales figures have so far exceeded the company's initial expectations. It soon became one of the most sought-after Christmas gifts and the company cannot manufacture these fast enough to meet overwhelming market demand. Just before Christmas, the company revised its sales forecast positively, made this product its second-most valuable asset, and even predicted that it would occupy a 20% market share among laptops within years.

The Eee PC is just one among several success stories that involve portable low-end products. They all happen to be Linux-based for a reason. Other similar laptops and tablets include: Zombu notebook (powered by Gentoo Linux), Nokia's Internet tablets (running the Debian-based Maemo), Intel's ClassMate (running Mandriva Linux) and PepperPad. Even Wal-Mart is poised to deliver a notebook equivalent of the Everex desktop mentioned above. It will be called Cloudbook.

The One Laptop Per Child makes another case study that isn't very ordinary. It is misunderstood by those who review it because its target audience is underprivileged children in parts of the world where computing is more rare. The laptop is highly innovative -- and thus it seems almost outlandish -- but at the same time a not-for-profit organization stands behind it. The laptop, which runs XO on top of Fedora Linux, strives to reach children all across the globe and become a universal educational tool. It is proving quite popular even among adults in United States where it is sold under the ”Give one, get one” program (closing at the end of this month, so you can still order yours and help bridge the digital divide).

New laptops of this kind keep coming at a rapid pace, owing to relatively low and ever-decreasing costs that are associated with producing hardware nowadays. This makes other expenses -- any expenses for that matter -- highly undesirable. Costs that are tied to software should constantly be escaped for a competitive edge, so manufacturers find haven in free software. Such new imbalance between the cost of hardware and software typically promotes the use of GNU/Linux.

Program scale and 'weight' (and therefore speed of the software) come into play also. Since Linux presents a flexible platform that facilitates tweaking, things like complexity, battery consumption and various other aspects are easier to have customized. Amazon's Kindle, for example, runs Linux and it employs an underlying design that exploits this key trait. It reduces consumption of battery power, thereby increasing its actual capacity. Generic and rigid systems cannot achieve this without considerable investment.

Consoles

Crossing over to the world of gaming, which is loosely related to computing, the GP2X handheld is definitely worth mentioning. It is one of the most hackable Linux-based consoles of its type and there are other similar gadgets such as the Sony Mylo, which came to the limelight in 2007. (Part 2 of this article will discuss such devices in greater depth.)

When it comes to next-generation consoles, GNU/Linux is never left neglected. A full-blown platform can trivially be installed on the PlayStation 3 and hacks also exist which enable GNU/Linux to run on Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's XBox360. The latter requires a firmware downgrade, however, and it is not considered quite so ethical. By all means, it does demonstrate the versatility and adaptability of the Linux kernel. There is almost no electronic circuit that Linux is unable to cope with nowadays. The kernel supports literally dozens of different architectures.

Media Players and Set-up Boxes

There are many examples of the use of GNU/Linux in media (e.g. video, audio, pure graphics). The MythTV family, for instance, is cutting-edge free software that can turn old PCs into powerful media servers and set-up boxes. Pre-built appliances already exist for those who cannot handle the complexity of installation. 2007 gave birth to several businesses (mostly system integrators) that capitalize on the need for support in this space.

Many commercial equivalents thrive without their users paying attention to the underlying system. Tivo is an excellent example of this because it runs Linux at its heart. Tivo customers are usually oblivious to this fact.

Among televisions, including consideration for IPTV, some have called Linux a de facto choice. Rarely does it get the attention of ordinary viewers to whom a box is just a box, no matter what programs run on it.

The next part of this article, which covers embedded Linux and also Linux devices, covers more about portable audio players and film production. This first part of the article presented just some of the many areas where the use of GNU/Linux continues to grow. The next part puts greater emphasis on areas of Linux growth that are more remote from people's sight. We will cover growth in devices, robotics and servers, including large-scale services powered by mainframes and cloud computing.

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