June 18, 2012, 11:28 AM — Even as Linux use is skyrocketing across various IT sectors, like cloud, web services, and virtualization, there are red sky at morning signs that turbulent times may be ahead for Linux for the desktop and mobile sectors.
Some of the signs are more obvious then others. Despite the success of the Linux-based Android in the smartphone market, there is still very little anything else Linux in the smartphone market to celebrate. This is true even though there have been multiple attempts to push out another Linux-based mobile platform that could complete with Android, iOS, and presumably Windows Phone.
And goodness knows there's been a lot of tries, not the least of which was the ill-fated and often-renamed Moblin project once stewarded by the Linux Foundation and commercially sponsored by Intel. Moblin would eventually go on to become MeeGo, after a merger with Nokia's Maemo platform, and then would evolve once more when Samsung would ease into the commercial sponsorship slot and lead a merger of the LiMo Foundation technologies to give birth to Tizen.
But the birth of Tizen didn't mean the end of MeeGo… just after the launch of Tizen, Nokia announced would hold onto the MeeGo technology as the basis for its Meltemi operating system for low-end smartphones.
Less than eight months later, Nokia announced last week that it would be ending its Meltemi efforts as part of a massive slashing of projects and jobs at the beleaguered Finnish company. Mary McDowell, Nokia's executive vice president in charge of mobile phones and one of the standards-bearers for the project was among the 10,000 employees in the layoff plan.
Ryan Paul, as usual, asks the right questions over at Ars Technica. Specifically, what will this mean for Qt, the free software development framework that was at the heart of MeeGo and still remains a big presence in embedded and desktop Linux space? For now, Paul discovered, Qt is still in play.
And, even if Nokia does jettison Qt, there's still the fact that Nokia is not the only Qt customer in the world and Qt is still under a free software license.
"The most important thing to keep in mind is that Qt is licensed under the LGPL and has a broad ecosystem around it. Regardless of what happens at Nokia, it won't be the end of the world," Qt developer Aaron Seigo told me in February 2011 when Nokia's burning deck metaphor began.
Those words hold true today for Qt, but what about the broader Linux-as-mobile-platform market? Sure, MeeGo, Tizen, and what have you are all free or open source, but at the end of the day these platforms need something more: an actual device on which to operate.
That means a hardware vendor willing to pick up the OS and use it, and right now, the options seem low indeed, with everyone fixating on Android. Currently, only Samsun's Linux-based Bada is the only other platform with any traction out there.
There were indications earlier this year that Samsung was looking into merging Tizen with its own Linux-based Bada platform, but those rumors were quickly walked back by Samsung.
It's not a death knell for Linux in mobile space, to be sure, but it will be stormy seas ahead for Linux in mobile. I have a strong suspicion that a lot of the device makers (excepting Samsung) are waiting to see how the Windows family of mobile platforms (Phone, RT, and possibly Windows 8) will compete against iOS and Android to see if any third player can break the Android/iOS empires.
More subtly, I grow increasingly concerned about the viability of Linux on the desktop. Not because of Linux's own inherent struggles with the desktop platform, but because there really seems to a shift away from desktops in general.
I really a lot of people have said this, and many have dismissed it as so much Chicken Little arguments and hype about the future of the tablet. And sure, I will concede the hype.
But then I read articles like this one that outline how a company like Dell, which was slapped a 33 percent decrease in profits in the first quarter of 2012, is looking to cut $2 billion in expenses even as it expands its enterprise IT business.
Given that CEO Michael Dell and CFO Brian Gladden pointed out to analysts in a June 13 meeting that the enterprise sector (read: cloud) offers Dell a higher profit margin and "protects Dell from the slowing sales of consumer PCs, which are under pressure from the rise of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets," it's not an unreasonable conclusion that Dell's consumer PC business is about to get scaled back.
If that were to indeed happen, then I would expect there will be two effects on Linux: one short-term, and one long.
The short-term effect is obvious: as soon as Dell's relationship with Canonical for Ubuntu machines ends, it will be over. With overall PC sales dropping, I cannot see Dell putting any more money into selling preloaded Ubuntu machines. They've already all but ceased marketing the things anyway.
Long-term: if Dell scales back, other hardware vendors may do the same, shifting into severs or consumer devices, as their situations warrant. That will mean less opportunities for Linux to be on desktops (pre-loaded). Couple that with the new UEFI/Secure Boot requirements coming for Windows 8-certified machines, and the road to the Linux desktop becomes a lot harder.
This potential storm, more than the mobile storm, would have a broader impact on the Linux community at large, since it is the desktop that serves as both marquee and work platform for so many Linux developers.
The signs are there, but the storms are not. But all eyes should be on the horizon for what's coming next.
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