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10/22/2004
08:06 AM
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Linux In Your Lap?

The Linux parade is headed for Main Street. Finally, after years of nay-saying (and the occasional grumpy analyst report), we're seeing more evidence that open-source software is ready to become more than an asterisk in the mainstream market. Yet the true test for mass-market Linux isn't the desktop--it's the laptop. And while desktop Linux keeps moving towards the head of the class, its laptop cousin still has some homework to do.

The Linux parade is headed for Main Street. Finally, after years of nay-saying (and the occasional grumpy analyst report), we're seeing more evidence that open-source software is ready to become more than an asterisk in the mainstream market.

Yet the true test for mass-market Linux isn't the desktop--it's the laptop. And while desktop Linux keeps moving towards the head of the class, its laptop cousin still has some homework to do.

There are a number of reasons why the laptop market isn't yet friendly territory for Linux, but the most vexing is probably hardware support. Laptop vendors are notorious for tweaking their hardware configurations and chipsets--and in some cases, they'll make changes without bothering to change the model number. Most laptop hardware, however, still relies on third-party Linux drivers, and the developers who write these drivers are often one or two steps behind the vendors. I've seen experienced Linux users go half-mad dealing with broken drivers, and I guarantee this kind of trouble won't play in Peoria.

If you'd like to find other headaches for laptop Linux users, take your pick: power management, wireless networking, graphics and peripheral management are all giving somebody, somewhere, a serious headache as you read this. And as usual, the typical ways to find answers to these problems--user groups, newsgroups or the Linux geek next door--simply don't compute for 98 percent of the population, even if they're actively interested in using Linux and open-source software.

Now that I've delivered the bad news (with inexplicable glee, as usual), here's the good news: Things aren't nearly as bad for laptop Linux as they used to be, and they're likely to get much better very soon. Already, if you want a first-rate laptop system with a choice of Linux distros, no hassles with hardware or drivers, and reliable support, firms such as LinuxCertified are filling the gap that major vendors aren't yet willing to cross. And the Linux 2.6 kernel, which is now a part of the Red Hat and SUSE distros and should be appearing elsewhere over the next several months, includes new software-suspend and wireless support capabilities, along with the ability to change processor speed based on a laptop's power profile.

And then there's the Linux-based laptop system HP introduced last month. It's the first such offering from a major laptop manufacturer, and as a result it got more press coverage than most hardware announcements. It's also the first, and perhaps the most important, test for laptop Linux. Although some analysts are predicting that other major vendors will have to follow suit with their own Linux-based laptops, HP is still treating this as an experiment rather than a permanent addition to its product line. In other words, the HP honeymoon could still end in a quick divorce.

While we're waiting for the jury to come in on laptop Linux, I'd like to hear your own experiences purchasing, installing and using Linux on laptop computers. Let me know what you think, and I'll share the best responses here on Linux Pipeline.

Patent Madness

Finally, a quick note about some of the news and feature stories you'll see here on Linux Pipeline. We have run stories lately dealing with intellectual property controversies, most notably software patents, and we'll run a lot more of them in the future. Not all of these stories have a direct Linux or open-source angle, but they all cover an issue that every open-source developer and every company using open-source software should follow closely.

I strongly believe that our patent system--and the resulting wave of patent-related litigation--represents the most dangerous threat open-source software will ever face. In future columns I'll deliver more information on the patent threat, what it means to the open-source community, and how you can get involved to help fix the problem.

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