Thinking Past Platforms: the Next Challenge for Linux

by Doc Searls

In my first SuitWatch Newsletter, on September 5, 2002, I wrote this: "A funny thing happened to Linux on the way to World Domination: it succeeded. That's the good news; the bad news is its success has hit a few hitches, and it's unclear how long those hitches will last."

The biggest hitch — dominating PCs the way Linux has dominated servers and embedded devices — is still around, almost five years later. And it will remain a hitch as long as hardware OEMs continue to follow Microsoft rather than lead the marketplace.

That's the gauntlet I threw down last Wednesday, in my last SuitWatch. And now I'm throwing it down here. I want to challenge the big hardware OEMs — Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony and the rest of them — to break free of the only form factors Microsoft will let them make, and start leading the marketplace by making make cool, interesting, fun and useful stuff that isn't limited by any one company's catalog of possibilities. Stop making generic stuff. Grow greener grass beyond the Windows fences. Stop thinking of Linux as "generic" and "a commodity". Start looking at how building only Windows PCs forces you to make generic, commodity products.

A few weeks ago I was talking with folks who worked inside one of the large hardware OEMs. Somewhere in there they told me about their "Linux strategy". I told them they needed a "Linux strategy" about as much as a construction company needs a "lumber strategy".

If you're going to have a Linux strategy, make that strategy about getting past an OS-bound view of the world. Because the big difference between Linux and Windows is that you can build anything you want with Linux. With Windows you can only build what Microsoft lets you build.

Think about it.... Does Microsoft tell HP how to make printers? Does it tell Sony how to make camcorders or flat displays? Hell no. Then why do those companies let Microsoft tell them how to make desktops and laptops? Another way of putting it: Why should the choice of personal computing hardware form factors be limited by the things Windows can do? Why wait for Microsoft to provide the base designs for desktops, laptops, notebooks and hand-helds? Why not let your engineers' imaginations run wild? Why not listen to customers who want personal computers that do stuff Windows can't? (Or Apple's OS X, for that matter.)

The short answer is politics. "All technical problems are political as well as technical", Craig Burton once told me. "And the technical problems can always be solved". The politics of OS-choosing is the politics of marriage. That's why the big hardware OEMs have been acting for decades like they're married to Microsoft, which is why they act as if putting Linux on boxes that already have Microsoft logo tatoos is like cheating on their spouse.

But looking at Microsoft and Linux as an either-or choice is an old game with a false premise. That's because Linux isn't a "platform" like Windows. It's not a foundation for a silo. It's just building material -- the computing equivalent of 2 x 4s and 2 x 6s in the development equivalent of frame construction. As with frame construction, you can build anything you want with it. With Linux there's no one company telling you what you can make. With Linux, it makes no more sense for any company to tell you how to build a computing device than it does for Weherhaeuser to tell you how to build a house.

Sitting in the next room from me is a new HP 3-in-1 printer. It's an amazing device. When we put it in, we retired a fax machine, a copier, a scanner and two color ink jet printers. Any computing device in our house can use it, including our Linux laptops. But here's the coolest thing about this device: no one company told HP how to make one. It is an HP invention. No other company is telling HP how few varieties of printers (or anything, other than PCs) it can make.

The Linux community also has to get past the belief that Linux is mostly an alternative to other OSes. The Windows vs. Mac choice is between two silos that both do their best to lock customers in and maximize the dependencies of developers on proprietary platform SDKs and the like. Linux is not an alternative to any platform. It is an alterative to platforms themselves. It is the path to an open marketplace, not just another silo.

There's a great series of fake ads that Novell has put together recently, each a parody of the Apple ads where two guys represent a PC and a Mac. In these ads, Linux shows up in the form of a smart and attractive young woman. It's a brilliant twist away from the usual penguin representation. But it still makes the mistake of portraying Linux just as an alternative to other operating systems. It still lets Microsoft and Apple set conceptual limits for what you can do with a PC.

For the last few weeks I've been asking folks about what they'd like in computing devices other than the usual desktops, laptops, notebooks and hand-helds. Here are a few of the things we've come up with:

  • A note-taking tablet that has no keyboard, finds the Net wirelessly and is always on.
  • A Linux-liberated "backplane for the dashboard" for cars, so customers can plug whatever they want into their rides -- including multiple pieces that each have a function and all work together, regardless of manufacturer.
  • Combination audio record-playback devices with server software that can jack into anything, anywhere.
  • Truly open mobile phones, not locked into any one carrier.
  • Home cordless phones that are as full-featured as cell phones — and can easily pass back and forth their address books with phones and computers.
  • HD digital camcorders with wireless connections for off-device storage that can record in a variety of codecs.
  • Whole-house audio systems that lack all forms of lock-in and welcome connections with anything.
  • A NAS (network attached storage) device with a CD slot that's built not just to serve music in a house, but to make it easy for ordinary folks to copy their CD collections onto it.
  • A Lego-like approach to building portable hardware that lets users combine any number of capabilities -- mobile phone, GPS, wireless computer bridge, game console, AM/FM radio, FM transmitter, whatever.

Never mind that many of these things already exist in various forms, can be built by hackers using available parts, or can be built inside the Microsoft development silo. What matters is that there is no limit to what can be built once the computer industry arrives at the place where the construction industry arrived long ago: everything is essentially modular, and no one source of building materials or designs can set limits on what everybody else can make or do.

The problem we're solving is lock-in, and it goes far beyond Microsoft alone. Apple does it with iTunes and the iPod. Sony does it with proprietary codecs and HD camcorders. What Linux should now do is lead the way toward the widespread realization that you'll get more happy customers by making a bigger choice of better stuff than you'll get or keep by locking them in.

People don't like iPods because they're locked into Apple's silo. They like iPods because they're the best handheld media players with the most useful and appealing designs. If Apple opened their silo tomorrow, and let anybody make an iTunes equivalent to work with the iPod, they wouldn't sell one iPod less. In fact, they'd probably sell even more. (Hard to imagine, but I'm sure they would.)

Thanks to the politicized marriages between hardware OEMs and Microsoft, there is a huge pent-up demand for Linux-based hardware, even inside the market for existing form factors. Look at Dell's IdeaStorm, where the company opened itself up to the marketplace and was immediately -- and continuously -- barraged by demand for Linux-based products. As of last Tuesday the top requests were:

  1. Pre-Installed Linux | Ubuntu | Fedora | OpenSUSE | Multi-Boot (121356 votes)
  2. Pre-Installed OpenOffice | alternative to MS Works & MS Office (85350 votes)
  3. Have Firefox pre-installed as default browser (61103 votes)
  4. NO EXTRA SOFTWARE OPTION (58208 votes)
  5. No OS Preloaded (56540 votes)
  6. Stripped down, fast Linux Box (59120 votes)
  7. Provide Linux Drivers for all your Hardware (44817 votes)
  8. Linux 2.6.16 ready sticker (34821 votes)
  9. LinuxBIOS instead of proprietary BIOS (23436 votes)
  10. More RAM! (23249 votes)
  11. Become the open source OEM (20038)
  12. Silent / Quiet Computers: Sound levels in decibels (19107 votes)
  13. Laptop Web Cam (16352 votes)
  14. Design & Form Factor (16575 votes)

That's the list from the first page of results. Out of 3788 contributed ideas.

One word sums all these up: freedom. That's what both the supply and demand sides of the market want. And they want to exercise that freedom together. This should be obvious, but it isn't. Yet. All that stands in the way is politics. (Attention HP, Lenovo, Sony and the rest of you: Take these clues before Dell does. Let's have some competition here.)

Start with the easy pickings. Look at the huge hole in the middle and low ends of the desktop and laptop markets, opened by a combination of Apple's success at the high end and Microsoft's failures at the middle and low end (aging of XP, lack of genuine "wow" around Vista). Go fill it with new stuff that's open, innovative and unfettered by any OS vendor's agenda.

Okay. So that's the challenge to hardware OEMs. Now here's my parting SuitWatch challenge to the Linux community: let's move beyond Linux advocacy as a cause in itself. We're pretty much done with that. The cause that matters now is Make what you want, any way you want to make it.

Look at Google search trends for Linux over the past few years. Since the end of 2003 (when Google's chart begins) Linux searches have fallen by nearly 50%. (Another reveleation: none of the top ten sources of searches is from a location where English is the first language.) As I said when we started SuitWatch in 2002, Linux has won. Its victory is old news. What matters now isn't the old news but the long news.

In the fall of 2005, on the last Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise, somebody (maybe it was me) asked Andrew Morton if he thought we'd still be stomping out Linux kernel bugs 200 years from now. Without hesitating he said "Yes". That's the perspective we should all adopt now.

Linux is the frame construction of computing. Nobody's going to offer a more popular or useful alternative. Yes, there will be other choices, and that's fine. But the basic approach to building OS-based computing hardware has been worked out. That work-out was born with Unix, and reached maturity with Linux. Today the LAMP stack is a couple hundred thousand letters long. Other Unixes are shortening. OS X can't compete. And now Windows can't either. It was already post-peak with XP, and Vista so far is a non-starter. Microsoft would now be well-advised to start making software for Linux as well. They will eventually in any case.

A new mantra: You can make anything with Linux. Anything.

Hack on.

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