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Doc Searls

Issue #117, January 2004

Will your next laptop “just work” with Linux? And when will you be able to buy a major-label laptop without a proprietary OS anyway?

Let's do a check-box progress report on Linux World Domination of computer hardware types. We'll run down the scale, starting at the top:

  • Mainframes

  • Big enterprise database machines

  • Big compute farms

  • Symmetrical multiprocessing machines

  • Small- and medium-sized business machines

  • Engineering workstations

  • Desktops

  • Laptops

  • Notebooks

  • PDAs

  • Embedded devices

Looks pretty good. At the high end, gains will increase as the 2.6 kernel begins to establish itself. At the low end, the contest is all but over. Ken Nelson, President and CEO of CACMedia (cacmedia.tv) and a veteran of the consumer electronics business, tells me Linux “owns the embedded category”. Even Microsoft is a distant also-ran.

The standout exceptions are desktops, laptops, notebooks and PDAs. And of those four, the one that matters is laptops. That's where the center of gravity in personal computing is moving today. In the last year, “Desktop Replacement” became a leading laptop category as well as a description of what's happening to the marketplace. Thanks to desktop-grade functionality and the growth of wireless networking, Wi-Fi-enabled laptops are doing to desktops what cell phones did to desk phones. As a result, desktops are turning into cubicleware at work, while at home they are morphing into forms that are sure to displace TV as the central household entertainment appliance.

Meanwhile, laptops are getting more fully functional every day. For under $2,000 US you can get a high-speed laptop with a 1600 × 1200 display, a gigabyte of RAM, 80+GB of storage, a good sound system, a first-rate graphics subsystem and a drive for burning as well as playing both CDs and DVDs. For display alone, laptops kick desktop butt. As one hardware company executive put it, “You want a two megapixel display—get a big-screen laptop. It's priced in the same range as a standalone display.”

Linux isn't pushing these developments; Apple and Microsoft are. With all due respect to the innovations involved (credit where due: there are many, especially on Apple's part), the leverage comes from relationships between manufacturing companies. Thanks to design agreements between laptop makers and the sources of graphics subsystems, namely NVIDIA and ATI, new Mac OS X and Windows laptops can play a DVD with minimal CPU involvement. Linux doesn't have that privilege—yet.

Linus explained the situation in the long talk he gave on the Linux Lunacy Geek Cruise in September 2003:

Quite honestly, none of the laptop vendors support Linux at all, really. To be real. Some of them go through a certain amount of motions. They support Linux in certain configurations if it's not too painful. But the amount of support tends to be okay (to a limited degree). It may not suspend. It may not actually do half of the things you want a laptop to do. But you can run Linux on it. I expect that to change as companies start to use Linux more on the desktop. If you have a few big companies that just say, “Hey, Linux has to work on our laptops”, suddenly hardware manufacturers will start caring a whole lot more....

So, the good news is laptops are moving away from the embedded machine kind of thing. They are getting so standardized. Especially with chipsets like Centrino. If you use the Pentium-M and you don't use Centrino, you are doing stuff wrong—except for the fact that they don't support (802.11) A&G; and right now you can't get Centrino drivers for Linux....

I've also heard that they exist, but other people at Intel say “That's crap. We have it on the road map, but we haven't been able to get it going.” They have been promising them for 2004, but I am not an Intel spokesman by any stretch. So I don't know what the actual date is. But it is supposed to come.

The thing is, when you built a laptop, you used to have to scrounge around people's backyards to find strange pieces of hardware just to make it all fit. And that is definitely going away. And that's not just Centrino. Instead of having hundreds of different chipsets that you wire up a million different ways, you're going to have maybe five different chipsets, and you can't wire them up any way other than the way they are wired up. And that's just going to happen.

This is what we had on the desktop ten years ago. Compaq made their own PC desktops that weren't quite standard. Actually HP was worse. And that just went away because of standard chipsets. And it's starting to happen in laptop space now. So, a year from now, I'd expect...assuming we can fight those ACPI issues...it's much more likely that when you buy a laptop it will just work.

Markets get made in exactly two ways. The first is “find customer needs and satisfy them.” When a bunch of companies start doing that and competing to make the best products and services, you have a market. Reduced to a single phrase, Marketing 101 teaches “Necessity is the mother of invention.” The second way is less obvious, but without it we wouldn't have a single technology category. It goes like this: make something so new and cool that customers think they have to have it. They hardly teach this in marketing school, but if they did, the single-phrase version would be “Invention is the mother of necessity.”

When people ask you how Apple can drive whole markets and establish new technology standards (hard-case floppies, SCSI, flat screens, USB, FireWire, GUIs, Wi-Fi and so on) over and over again, point them to that second marketing principle. Apple does a great job of inventing needs. It's a skill that goes beyond simple innovation. Steve Jobs' genius is not his obsession with art; that's a real asset, but it's also a red herring. His genius is knowing how invention can lever the world.

Invention is not what Microsoft does. And it's not what Linux does, either. Microsoft innovates, as they'll tell you, over and over again—and they're right. The company comes up with an endless series of modest but marketable improvements to goods largely invented elsewhere. Although Microsoft has an abundance of red herring assets (credit where due), its real genius may lie in the very hole where we currently find Linux in respect to laptops: in relationships with hardware OEMs. These relationships are highly muscular on Microsoft's part and deeply involved. Look at any laptop today, and you see a little sticker that says “designed for Windows XP” or something similar, along with a Microsoft Windows logo. You can imagine the extent to which Microsoft labors, within its hardware OEM relationships, to make sure Linux has the hardest possible time running on laptops.

And don't discount the manufacturers' shared interest in the same resistance. No tier-one hardware manufacturer wants to see the world filled with white box or build-it-yourself laptops. What makes each of their laptops unique may be the very thing that keeps Linux from running on every model across the board, from one manufacturer to another. But that's not a problem. Not in the long run, which may not take very long at all.

In the emerging laptop market ecology, three parties will represent three different forces: Apple the inventor, Microsoft the innovator and Linux the disrupter.

In The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Companies to Fail, Clayton Christensen lays out the last two roles rather clearly. Innovators find it hard to disrupt themselves. They resist the inevitable, even as they see it coming. Incumbent innovators could be found in every one of the computing categories we checked at the start of this column. Linux disrupted all of them. The ones that embraced the disruption, starting with IBM, have made the most of innovation as well.

Linux also will disrupt laptops and the remaining categories for the simple reason taught in Marketing 101: necessity will mother invention. One of these months, some company—a FedEx, a Boeing, a General Motors, a Siemens—will call on Dell, HP and IBM to compete for filling a gargantuan Linux laptop order. The relationship with Microsoft will be strained for the winner of the contest, but they'll do the deal. They'll lean on Intel to release the Linux device drivers for Centrino. They'll work with Canon and Sony to get the device drivers written for the cameras, camcorders and scanners. They'll finish hammering out the ACPI issues. And we'll have good, cheap Linux laptops being marketed, with real advertising, by the big hardware OEMs.

Then you can start checking off the rest of the list.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal.

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