What's "Linux on the Desktop" Mean, When We Don't Know What a Desktop Is, Anymore?

It's typical, sensible, and useful for a conference wrap-up keynote address to look at the big picture, with session descriptions like, "Where Linux has been and where it's headed." At last week's Open Source Convention, the role of identifying the major Linux trends and challenges was given to Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS ]

First, there's much to cheer about in the Linux and open source communities, Zemlin said, in every venue from mobile to high-performance computing. "Today, in the modern world, everyone uses Linux muliple times a day, even if they don't know it," he said. The economy is benefiting open source because of cost reasons; it's expanding and accelerating existing trends. Even Microsoft is actively participating in Linux, and attending OSCON.

Once every discussion about the future of Linux came down to desktop questions like, "When will it run on my Mom's computer?" But that Linux-desktop issue changes when you contemplate convergence, or as Zemlin said, "Phones are starting to look a lot more like PCs, and PCs are looking a lot more like phones." Is the smartphone the next big desktop? Are MIDs, netbooks, and nettops the new desktop? "Do any of these matter?" he asked. "Is the browser the new desktop? Is it the TV? Is that the next desktop war?"

"We don't know what the next desktop will be," Zemlin said. "It's likely to be all of these things. ... All of them have clearly one main thing in common and that's Linux."

This isn't just about operating systems or an open source philosophy, he maintained. "Because 'convergent' changes the way PC industry makes money. How an industry makes money drives where innovation happens and where venture capital money is applied. As PC prices (or at least netbook prices) drop under the cost of your tricked-out iPhone, he said, it will change the economics in the way the PC industry behaves and the way the mobile industry behaves. "What do we mean by a desktop in that world?"

Most computer users don't think about the device manufacturers' point of view (they're called OEMs, for Original Equipment Manufacturers, though the abbreviation is often expanded to mean "anyone who messes with hardware"). Linux users might chafe at what they see as the"Windows tax"—that is, paying for a preloaded copy of Windows that's immediately discarded after purchase—but, Zemlin explained in an interview later on Friday, few recognize that the included software represents a third of the cost of a PC. "The OEMs in Taipai love Linux,"he said. "It shaves $30 off the BOM [bill of materials, i.e. the product cost]." Even when an OEM doesn't make Linux available, he added, it's a legitimate topic for price negotiations, "a toehold that actually succeeds."

Nor is this only about operating systems and the software that a company will stuff onto your new notebook computer. It used to be that you got most of your applications directly from indpendent software vendors (ISVs) and that hardware vendors were completely uninvolved in that transaction.

"The industry is going elsewhere," said Zemlin. "In the mobile phone industry, app stores are changing the ways money changes hands." The application vendor is giving 30% of its sales to the OEMs, who control what is made available. It's a huge linchpin, said Zemlin, with the OS provider making all its money on the app store fees and controlling what applications go on or off their platform. That's going to change the way that PCs work, he believes — and not just in phones.

"Free phones made mobile phones take off," Zemlin pointed out, making the intermediaries more powerful. The providers gave away the phones because they made money over the customer's contract. And, he believes, that same model may happen with PCs too. (See Linux exec: Personal computers will be free like phones.) And when an OEM can control its own destiny, Linux looks mighty fine indeed. In any of these scenarios, "Linux is perfectly suited because you don't necessarily have to pay royalties,"he said. All the players realize they need to address this new dynamic, and "They are not locked into a Redmond brand."

That's increasingly true since the driving force is no longer about hardware and packaged software: it's really services with a low-cost infrastructure, Zemlin said. "Google is in the services business, as is Netflix [with online movies]," he said. "And Salesforce.com is driving the industry into a services model." (Surely, you've already read plenty about the promises and challenges of cloud computing?) In that world, Linux and open source meet the demand perfectly.

"It is all about cheap," Zemlin contends, and Linux certainly wins on "cheap." After showing one of the Microsoft "I'm a PC" ads (in which a techie is looking for a $1,500 computer), Zemlin wondered aloud: "I wonder what I can get for $1,500, running Linux?" Let's see his hypothetical shopping list: An HP Mini 1000; Android, $99; a 42" big screen TV running Linux, $499; A Neros Linux-based DVR, $150. All with a full software productivity suite. And, he said, since I had a lot of money left over, I got a a one laptop per child computer, too. Or... would you prefer the Windows computer chosen by the guy in that TV commercial?

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