The silent victory of Linux-as-geology at CES 2007

by Doc Searls

Three years ago, out of more than 2300 CES exhibitors, the word "Linux" appeared in text associated with just 11 of them, in the show's online guide. This year at CES 2007 has more than 2700 exhibitors; yet "Linux" appears in text associated with just 3 companies: Interact-TV, Neuros Technology and Pixel Magic Systems. Yet it is clearer than ever that Linux has become the bedrock on which more and more companies build their solutions.

When I stopped by the Netgear booth and asked if they had some Linux stories, I was told "I'm sure we do", and that I should talk with one of the PR people, since there weren't any engineers around. Message: Linux is engineering. It's deep stuff. Bedrock. When you're selling houses, you don't lead your pitch with points about the foundation. Especially when everybody else builds on the same bedrock, with the same cement poured over the same rebar.

At the Garmin booth, I asked how they were doing in their efforts, first announced a year ago, to support platforms other than Windows with software support for their GPS devices. A guy there (who would rather not be named) smiled and said they were not only announcing progress on the Mac platform (at Macworld, going on simultaneously), but that we should "stay tuned" for progress on Linux as well. The guy at Garmin's kiosk at the NavTeq booth told me that Garmin is quietly basing their next generation of PNDs — Personal Navigation Devices — on Linux. This is consistent with what Greg Kroah-Hartman told me last April:

I gave my "Write a real, working, Linux driver" tutorial a few weeks ago at the CELF conference, and there were about 6 developers in it from Garmin. I got to talking to them later and they were all very excited about Linux and had been working with it for a while. But they were doing this because they were going to be using Linux _inside_ their devices, as maintaining their own custom operating system was just too hard over time (porting to new platforms, new feature requests, etc.) So Linux will be inside Garmin devices, and all of their engineers will be using it.

Now because of that, these engineers will be needing to test their devices with Linux, as Linux will have suddenly become their desktop environment in which they do their work (much easier to develop embedded Linux work on a Linux workstation, it's possible to do it on Windows, but tough, everyone eventually switches over...) So those developers will start to make sure that their userspace tools and other stuff works just fine with Linux on the desktop. They are talking already about following the USB standards for mass-storage, as they don't want to write a special driver. Once they do that, it's only a matter of dropping your newly purchased GPS maps into the device, using any operating system you want to.

So there is hope, it's an evolutionary process (get the engineers using it, and it moves outward from there). It's what happened with Linux on the server years ago, and now we have a huge chunk of that market. Same thing is happening right now with embedded. Combine those two ends of the markets, and they will start to bleed into the middle (the desktop) without much trouble at all.

Later I followed a lead from Andrew Leyden (of PenguinRadio and PodcastDirectory — and who hung out with me last year at the show) to Cambridge Consultants, a large U.K. engineering and development firm. Cambridge was showing off a new wireless Internet radio called Iona, and which Andrew called "the hottest thing in net radio — because it's CHEAP!! ... $15 for the guts, which is a massive order of magnitude lower than anything anyone else has been able to develop". At the Cambridge booth I talked with Tim Whittaker, a Systems Architct with the company, about the Iona and the work they do. While the device itself, like most of the devices they design, did not include Linux (or need to), the engineers there did most of their work on Linux. The need for engineers to do their work on Linux was hardly a question that needed visiting. I felt like I was asking if they used gravity.

This has been a steady trend and it continues to be a good sign. But it becomes clearer with every show that the growing majority of Linux Stories are because effects. Meaning they are about what you can do because of Linux rather than with it. For example, the Iona radio looks to me like the missing piece we've needed before Internet radio finally happens in a big way. With Iona innards, cheap portable Internet radio finally become affoardable. It shouldn't be long before the Net becomes becomes a "dial" or a "band" alongside AM, FM and shortwave. Besides a pile of other possibilities. Think of it as an invention that can mother a lot of necessities.

As I explained in Greater Goods (my December 2006 Linux Journal column), Linux is just the deepest bedrock involved in this whole trend. The LAMP stack is now about 150,000 components high. (One very long initialism if we bother to stretch it out.) Yet it's almost invisible:

The problem with classical economics is that it centers its concerns at the commerce level, and specifically around transactions. More is involved than just transactions, and a lot of it happens down at these other layers.

\Common, public and free goods, whether or not they are produced by commercial activity, are external to it. But, significantly, they are external below, on the supportive side. And you can't completely understand the virtues or natures of those lower-level goods in commercial terms, economic or otherwise-just as the science of mechanics cannot explain physics or chemistry, even as it relies on them.

From the perspective of commerce, it is hard (maybe impossible) to comprehend the supportive (and not merely the external) purposes of free and open-source software-or why they are so deeply supportive of economic activity and value creation. It is hard to see how, by their nature, free and open-source software provide deep and supportive culture, governance and infrastructure for all kinds of commercial activity. Yet this is how, at the deepest level, we are making the digital world.

The big brain-twister is, it only gets larger. That's because, unlike the physical world-with its fixed dimensions and its portfolio of building materials assembled from the periodic table of elements-the digital world can be improved by anybody ready and able to contribute useful code.

Much more happened on Day One. You can see some hints of it among the pictures I've been putting up on (the also Linux-based) Flickr.

And I'll come back with more reports as we go through Days 2 (today) and 3.

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