Move to mobile will bring big changes for Linux

If Web is everywhere, then Linux could be facing great change

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The Linux operating system may have taken another big step towards evanescence this weekend with the release of the Mozilla Foundation's 2012 roadmap for Mozilla-related products.

This is a step on a journey that's been happening for a long time, and it is the natural result of commoditizing the operating system. Specifically, the presence of Linux is so accepted as a given within a product offering, that the operating system no longer becomes an important part of the total solution.

The news from Mozilla, from a less-broad perspective, was good to hear: the foundation, and its commercial subsidiary Mozilla Corporation, seem finally ready to get out from under the subsidy-as-revenue business plan they have been using for the past few years. That's the one where Google and Microsoft--creators of the Chrome and Internet Explorer browsers, respectively--pay Mozilla, the makers of the Firefox browser, a premium to include their respective search engines as default options within Firefox releases.

To escape this rather tenuous business plan, the new roadmap highlights Mozilla's plan to create their own soup-to-nuts mobile platform within a project knowns as Boot to Gecko. The roadmap describes the new platform as:

"A truly Web-based OS for mobile phones and tablets would enable the ultimate in user choice and developer opportunity, both from a technology and an ecosystem point of view. Boot to Gecko is a project to build a OS that runs HTML5, JavaScript and CSS directly on device hardware without the need for an intermediate OS layer. The system will include a rich user experience, new APIs that expose the power of modern mobile phones through simple JavaScript interfaces; a privilege model to safely and consistently deliver these capabilities to websites and apps with the user in control. Boot to Gecko leverages BrowserID, the Open Web app ecosystem and an identity and apps model that puts users and developers in control."

The Boot to Gecko roadmap goes into more detail, but needless to say, this is Mozilla finally shaking off its dependence on browser revenues and threading where Google, with ChromeOS; Canonical, with Unity on Ubuntu; and (most recently) the Plasma community's Spark tablet have already started: the creation of standards-based platforms that rely on robust web applications (in varying degrees) more than native-run apps to provide the user experience.

(As a side question, I will be interested to hear if Mozilla's plan gets the "too little, too late" criticisms that have been heaped upon Canonical's shifts in this direction with the Unity platform. Somehow, I doubt it.)

Obviously, this is not new ground for Linux-based mobile platforms: I've already listed the short list of platforms that are heading in direction, and haven't even mentioned Tizen, which Samsung plans to merge with its Badu mobile OS to create something new. It might not fit as well into this category, since there will be more emphasis on native apps.

But this is a widely variable category at best. Spark will be a web-app platform both from within the browser and getting to web services outside the browser using APIs provided by the web service. "They're all a part of the Spark story," according to Aaron Seigo.

Ubuntu's Unity platform will definitely carry a lot of native apps from Ubuntu's big catalog--but I suspect Canonical will also a similar emphasis on web services. They'd be silly not to.

All of these shifts to a mobile platform represent a great deal of change for the Linux ecosystem, ones that I am not sure everyone understands the ultimate resolutions. (Heck, I am unsure of a few myself.) But here's some consequences that keep popping up on my radar:

Linux distributions are far less important in mobile spaces. This has been happening for a while now, and the trend will continue, as all of these mobile Linux-based devices/platforms will keep being churned out, and (because of the emphasis on HTML5/web application development), no one will care about what specific platform is running underneath.

Canonical has been increasingly good at this "masking" of Linux. It give Linux props when it has to, but for years it's all been about "Ubuntu." The company is even carrying it one step further with Unity… I hear that term bandied about in the press as a platform in and of itself more than I hear "Ubuntu Unity," and I think that's intentional.

Distributions are becoming less important, period. This has been articulated before, but I'll say it again: there is a lot more importance being placed on the desktop environment running on top of the given Linux distribution in question than the distro itself. Haven't you noticed?

More and more, it's no longer about "I run Fedora" or "openSUSE rocks"… now the conversations have shifted to things like how much better Cinnamon is than Unity, or how Trinity kicks mainline KDE's butt.

Last week, I used this notion to ponder about the potential success of Unity as a desktop environment. But now I want to broaden the argument out further and address this idea of the environment being the differentiator, not the distribution. I very much think that we are heading for a time when Linux flavors will be identified by environments, not distributions.

When so many application functions can be duplicated by web services on the browser or through apps that plug right into the web APIs, the look and feel of the interface will become more important--moreso, I think, than the Linux distribution of packages underneath.

This may present some messaging problems for the big commercial Linux vendors, by the way: if the distribution underneath becomes less important, then Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and SUSE Enterprise Linux Server may soon have a serious fight on their hands. In the past, one of the big differentiators has been that these "big" distros provide solid infrastructures in which business applications can be developed. If this Linux-is-Linux-is-Linux idea takes root, that will undercut a big marketing tool for Red Hat and SUSE Linux.

I think we have been seeing their reactions to this for a while, as both Red Hat and SUSE have been pushing their offerings in virtualization-, cloud-, and appliance-space as their special sauce. I think the smaller vendors know it, too. Last Friday's blog from Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth announcing the new Ubuntu Business Desktop Remix gave a nice little smack to Red Hat's notions of a commercial distro:

"This remix takes the most common changes we've observed among institutional users and bundles them into one CD which can be installed directly or used as a basis for further customization. Before anyone gets all worked up and conspiratorial: everything in the remix is available from the standard Software Centre. Packages out, packages in. No secret sauce for customers only; we're not creating a RHEL, we already have an enterprise-quality release cadence called LTS and we like it just the way it is."

Shuttleworth was trying to defuse any hand-waving about Ubuntu becoming The Man, but I also read that statement about RHEL has a direct heads-up to existing Red Hat customers and the small- to medium-size business customers that Red Hat still seems content to ignore: Canonical's coming for you.

Linux may soon see competition from surprising quarters. It's been no secret that the Linux ecosystem has dominated the attention and revenue of the IT sector, more than BSD, Solaris, and the other Unix-like operating systems.

But I don't think that's going to last. The Linux community may be cocky now, but let's think through this Linux-is-everywhere scenario a bit. If the operating system becomes just a background component that runs more web than native apps and app development for the platform itself becomes de-emphasized, then the obvious question then becomes: what does it matter it it's Linux running on the operating system layer?

I'm not kidding: there has been a renewed interest in systems like FreeBSD and PC-BSD, and Solaris-based distros are getting more attention lately. Now, couple that with the (real or manufactured) concerns that device makers have had with GPL compliance issues and patent infringements (again, real or imagined) and you have a recipe for trouble. With all the FUD spread about Linux these days, how long do you think it will be until someone from these BSD or Solaris camps starts hinting to customers that their offerings give a real alternative from the perceived morass of Linux.

I strongly suspect such assertions have been going on behind closed doors for a long time. But, as trials continue to drag on, and GPL compliance FUD becomes thrust into the limelight, I would be willing to bet that such whisperings will start to enter the public discussion soon.

In the past, Linux' stronger application ecosystem could hold off such attacks, but if more apps are enabled on the web, then native apps become less of an issue. Not to mention that it's getting easier and easier to port apps across to other Unix-OSes all the time.

This is a lot to assert, based on one little announcement from Mozilla, I will admit, but as I indicated at the start of this article, this is another step on a path we've been on for a long time.

No path in the IT sector can be walked without facing changes--sometimes big, sometimes small. It's critical the Linux community is well aware of the potential changes that can occur on this particular path.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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