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What Linux Will Look Like In 2012

Our open source expert foresees the future of Linux: By 2012 the OS will have matured into three basic usage models. Web-based apps rule, virtualization is a breeze, and command-line hacking for basic system configuration is a thing of the past.

What's also important is that over the next few years, the distinctions between these three licensing models will become heavily accentuated by both the Linux community and by the creators of these distributions themselves. This should help solidify for many non-technical people the distinction between free-as-in-speech and free-as-in-beer.

KDE 4's new desktop metaphor promises to give Linux users a radically new desktop experience.
(click for image gallery)

The Desktop
This year we've seen the appearance of a number of possible models for the Linux desktop of four years from now. One is KDE 4, which despite a rocky first release is quickly drawing attention for its forward-looking approach to desktop management. Its new desktop metaphor, named "Plasma", has just started to strut its stuff. After four more years and a bit more third-party development, it stands to be a lot more than just a visual curiosity, and become an actual way to get work done.

If KDE 4's new approach is too daunting, the Mac OS X inspired gOS desktop -- especially in its "Space" incarnation -- distills the Linux desktop down to its bare essentials. The gOS interface also serves as a front-end for many common web applications, one of the biggest ways people will do work on Linux in the first place. Expect to see many more variations on these kinds of stripped-down, click-and-go interfaces as ways to allow a growing base of non-technical Linux users to get on board with Linux. Pros will always still be able to drop to a command line, though.

Right now, in 2008, Linux is present in a great many hardware devices without most people ever knowing about it. By 2012, it'll be a brand name unto itself, thanks to the exploding netbook market, where Linux has proven itself to be a solid way to build an inexpensive computing platform. By that time, many first-tier manufacturers like Dell ought to be offering such devices -- and those that already do (like HP) will probably be looking seriously at offering more Linux-based gear. (As of this writing, Lenovo's just announced the IdeaPad S10 netbook with Linux in certain territories.)

Phones are already among the devices nowusing Linux as well, and it's also a growth market. ABI Research projected that by 2012, Linux will be powering something like 40 million mobile devices shipped that year alone. The definition of "mobile devices" is also expanding: in addition to netbooks, look for a great many Linux-powered devices with open architectures (the OpenMoko FreeRunner, for instance) that are designed to move between niches and fill more than one need at once.

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