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Linux Goes Mobile, But More On Phones Than Notebook PCs

A Continuing Work in Progress: The State of Linux 2006
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The Linux presence in the laptop market space faces a greater set of challenges than in the desktop market. It might be because laptops operate on a different timeline from desktops, where new generations appear on an almost quarterly basis; this shorter shelf-life conflicts with the too-frequent delays in the delivery of required drivers. What remains to be accomplished is a full-fledged commitment to comprehensive support for Linux laptops from top-tier manufacturers who propose to support them. That kind of commitment remains extremely unlikely until there is more evidence of coherence and unity among Linux distributions. This is, in fact, a veritable chicken-and-egg problem.

Figure 13: The Dell Latitude 110L comes preloaded with Linux

Dell Computer first announced, as early as the spring of 2000, the shipment of Latitude CPX and Inspiron 7500 series models preinstalled with Red Hat Linux certified by Linuxcare (now Levanta). Shortly thereafter, however, support quickly evaporated from Dell's Web site. In 2004, Dell established a Linux presence by opening a tiny portal that consists of a Linux-Precision workstation mailing list archive and a few community-sponsored site links, then announced an offering of an entry-level Latitude 110L preloaded with Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) the following year. The only catch is that you must be an entry-level customer based in France, where the vendor markets this Linux laptop.

Figure 14: The Hewlett-Packard NX 6110 also comes with Linux preloaded (in South Africa)

In March 2006, Hewlett-Packard of South Africa entered the Linux ring with the release of a Linspire-equipped HP NX 6110 series notebook. Following an earlier release of the Compaq NX 5000 that shipped with SUSE 9.1, which was unveiled at the 2004 LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, this represents repeated attempts from another major player to produce market-worthy Linux laptop products. Although the NX 6110 is available only in the South African market, it still illustrates that Linux is creeping into position as a viable alternative OS, even if only in minor ways and in limited releases.

Though Linux support is largely lacking in the notebook PC market, it demonstrates explosive growth in other mobile segments, including cellular phones, handheld digital assistants, and portable media players. The development of embedded Linux environments for instant-on appliance-like media playback is a strong trend in the consumer appliance market, especially where on-demand multimedia playback is concerned. For example, DVD software vendor InterVideo offers an instant-on media-centric OS that boots up in tens of seconds and operates alongside numerous other operating systems.

As it stands, Linux is poised to take the mobile phone marketplace by storm. Linux stands to benefit greatly from such rising demand, and early adopters like Motorola have a track history (and the credibility) to play "show and tell" here. Back in 2003, Motorola introduced its first Linux-based smart phone (model A760) that consisted of a personal information suite, audio-video playback components, and a trendy portable instant-messaging client. Shortly thereafter, Motorola unveiled the E680, A768i, and A780 follow-ons, also based on a Linux kernel. Though early market analysis predicted 2005 would be the Year of Linux Mobile Phones, that wasn't exactly the case. Symbian and Microsoft are still there to compete against, and both are also doing quite well. However, the burgeoning phone market has gained great benefits from the same sort of middleware applications that have bolstered Linux support in corporate IT environments.

Feature phones, smart phones, and mobile phones are the three primary categories where Linux is poised to do best. Units that center around full-featured operating systems represent a new age for mobile telephony. The Zelos Group (a global market research firm) forecasts sales in this segment to grow to 290 million units in 2008 (approximately 42.5% of all handsets). While original device manufacturers are largely divided on the strengths and merits of adopting Linux in a market dominated by Symbian and Windows Mobile, one trend is clear: all of these companies must deal with razor-thin margins while offering innovative features and adhering to a growing and more complex collection of standards. So far, the biggest successes for Linux on this front have been in the pan-Asian markets.

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