Linux for Suits - Picking New Fights

Now that Linux has won, what's the next cause to take on?
Mobile: the Ultimate User Space

Sometime this year there will be more than three billion mobile phones in the world. To put that in perspective (relying on last month's LJ Index), compare that to 1.4 billion credit cards, 1.3 billion land lines, 1.1 billion Net connections, 800 million cars, 200 million computer games, 100 million PVRs and 85 million iPods.

Cell phones are networked computing devices. A growing percentage of them run on Linux. Yet the OpenMoko ( and Trolltech's Qtopia Greenphone (, both wide-open working prototypes, are rarities. They face an enormous uphill battle against silo'd alliances between cell service carriers and equipment makers, such as Nokia and Motorola.

Yet the world needs open phones. In fact, I'd hazard a prophesy that open phones are inevitable, because there will be far more money to be made because of open phones than will ever be made with closed ones (and closed services offered only by carriers). We're starting to see vertical cracks in the closed wall of mobile telephony in settings such as universities, where rogue companies like Rave Wireless (disclosure: I consult them) provide students with custom (based on open) phones that run on familiar networks (such as Cingular and T-Mobile), but that do far more than the closed phones sold at stores by those same networks. Users are even free to do their own programming, create and add their own features and services. With each crack of this kind in a vertical market, the chance improves that open phones will become the norm rather than the exception.

The protagonists here are Linux techies, but working a much larger world of possibilities. The problem, as ever, is less a matter of closed systems than of the mentality behind it.

Once markets start to open up, it will be easy to fill whole magazine issues with stories of clever hacks and deployment successes.

Desktop and Laptop Linux

Desktop Linux has been approaching without ever arriving since the mid-1990s. Most Linux Journal readers are there already, of course. But they're wizards. The muggles are still on Windows and Mac boxes. What we've needed for the duration is one or more of the major hardware OEMs to wake up and smell the volume. Last year, Lenovo began selling Linux-loaded ThinkPads in a committed way, but not aggressively. Lenovo didn't push it. This year, Dell set out bait in the form of IdeaStorm, a site that had all the look of a “conversational” marketing ploy, but instead served as a hole in the Windows-only dike that has been holding the Linux desktop river outside of Dell's headquarters for the duration. That hole quickly widened to a river of its own, flooding through Dell's product development system. (See the IdeaStorm story in this issue's UpFront.)

I'd love to be a fly on the wall when Michael Dell tells Steve Ballmer that Dell will be selling Linux-branded laptops and desktops in a much more public way, because the company has no choice: the market demands it.

HP, Sony and the rest won't be far behind. As the volume grows, so will the portfolio of applications and the sum of expertise about Linux desktops and laptops.

This is a category that will explode very quickly. I'm willing to bet right now that in June 2008, Linux Journal will have an unavoidably personal focus to every issue—for the simple reason that there will be too much going on with desktops and laptops.

Or maybe not. We don't know yet. Lenovo, HP and Dell may continue quietly to fill orders for desktop Linux without ever marketing it aggressively. This won't go on forever, but the asymptote may still stay flat for another year, two or three.

Meanwhile, desktop and laptop Linux are still worth fighting for, just like we've been doing for the last decade or more.

DIY Everything

I have a confession to make. Or a Make to confess. I love Make magazine. I wish we'd done something like that first. Kudos to Dale Daugherty and the O'Reilly folks for pulling that one off and doing a great job with it—also for not running too much Linux-type stuff in there.

When I started with Linux Journal in the late 1990s, we were basically a how-to magazine. To a large degree, we still are. Most of our readers are hands-on types in any case. Problem solvers. Most of our writers (myself excluded) are too.

So I'm that Linux is (or can be) in nearly everything, what can we make or fix that's one or more layers up? What can we do with MythTV that's beyond a set-top box? Pluto is a cool (and Linux-based) whole-home automation, security, entertainment and telecom system. But, it's still a system. A deep and under-appreciated (and under-deployed) virtue of openness is modularity. You want to be able to mix and match different stuff from different makers, including (especially) yourself. We should be making Legos with Linux, not just embedding it in finished closed products that work only with themselves.

Here the fight is for the right and ability to build what you want, any way you want to build it. Although Make is oriented toward doing fun hacks on already-made stuff (turning a mouse into a robot or adding temperature control to a coffeemaker), we'd angle more toward making the modules, and the things-with-modules that allow anybody to build anything. Our protagonists would be the same DIY-ers we've had all along, but the problem would be Building Anything. Fun problem.

Years ago, I talked about how the software industry was turning into a construction industry—when architects, designers, builders and their specialties would all be independent of any one company's platform or development environment. Now we're almost there, but not quite. The fight here is to make Linux and its endless variety of “stacks” into the base materials with which people can put together using their own virtual Home Depots.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal