It sounded like a wild hook for a story, to put it mildly: In 2009, it is said, Linux will ship on more PCs than Windows. So I sat down with Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation to explain his reasoning behind such a statement. He did, and I learned about great many other forward-looking insights for Linux in '09, too.
"The New York Times recently did a piece on big-name companies like Dell and Hewlett-Packard all diving in the [Linux-powered] netbook space," he told me, "and on top of that there's QuickBoot, where you power on your machine and a couple of seconds later, you've booted into a Linux-powered mini-environment with network access, e-mail, and so on. The thing is, when people use this, Microsoft loses that much more customer experience. You're not booting into Windows, so Windows becomes further from the consumer in terms of what they're using day to day. And as you get less dependent on Windows, other things rise to the fore. If every machine that ships, ships with this, that's that much less of Windows people are using in some form. You can see then how Linux outships Windows in this sense."
Maybe that's a sneaky way to think about it, but I could see what he meant. Get Linux into people's hands in some form, especially in a form that allows them to do an end run around Windows, and you have that many more things that don't require the Windows ecosystem to be successful. And the time is right.
"A lot of the stuff we've been talking about [re: the growth of Linux] has been coming true this year," Jim went on. "Major PC makers are shipping PCs without Windows as A-list items, and the OEMs now have that much more leverage with Microsoft thanks to that. Hardware drivers work more often than not, even with things like wireless network cards that used to be a problem."
So what are the major Linux Foundation goals for 2009?
"Two big things. One, to grow the market for Linux; two, to provide a market for ISVs to use Linux that's a consistent target. The people who are using Linux to build things now, like netbooks, are trying to add their own branding to them apart from 'Linux'. Asus doesn't speak about the Eee PC as being a 'Linux' machine; it's their own Asus Eee OS. The experiences we have with each brand are what they want to take credit for."
To my ears this sounded fairly analogous to what happens with video game consoles. The XBOX 360, the PlayStation 3, the Nintendo Wii -- the names alone speak volumes about what you're going to get and in what form.
"Very true. Thing is, PS3 apps don't run on an XBOX; they're all isolated. With Linux, the challenge is for people who do custom branding -- can they build and innovate on the platform and also make the kind of money needed to drive future development? Consistency is something that's really important for that, especially on the back end where the innovation appens; it helps create critical mass. And it's not optional to do that when your most direct competition in this space has a 90% market share. You don't have the luxury of not working together."
Among the big projects and initiatives that the Foundation wants to really kick up a notch or three in '09 is Moblin, Intel's standardization platform for mobile devices. I asked how this differs from the already-out-there Android, and Jim put it this way: "Android's a Linux-based smartphone platform, but Mobil is a more traditional Linux distribution that's been specifically built for netbooks and similar devices. The two are aimed at different markets."
With the economy imploding like the house at the end of Poltergeist, there's been a lot of talk about using open source as a way to make IT budgets meet, but such talk has always for me had the flavor of "water is wet". Surely there's some deeper significance to how open source is a smart idea in hard times, I asked.
Jim used an economic analogy, one that I'd myself echoed a while back in a different way. "When you go into a recession, the people who come out on top are the people who have managed their risk effectively. Who's feeling the most pain? The people who put all their money into real estate; they're in real trouble. Or they put all their retirement money in the stock markets, and now their 401K has bottomed out. Those are the ones who hurt the most. The people who do well are balanced in their portfolio, with a little of everything -- some bonds, some stocks, some real estate, some cash, and so on.
"Linux is the most massively hedged computing project in the history of computing. Look at the tech companies: the one hurting most is Sun. Why? Not just because of their strategic mistakes, but because they're not hedged; they put everything into one basket. If you bet on Sun, which is doing badly, where are you going to be in five years? If you bet in Linux, look who's behind that: IBM, Novell, everyone."
One major set of events that Jim's looking forward to -- and me along with him -- is the expansion of Linux Foundation events overseas. "In '09 we'll be holding a major international Linux get-together in Tokyo, and we're looking to provide better training, education and other support for a future Linux labor pool. We're going to focus on the big markets for this, where big decisions are being made. Linux is no longer in a position where we need to perform flanking maneuvers; we can now meet things head-on."