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Is Android the “Top” Linux?

Doc Searls

Issue #192, April 2010

The Linux-based OS is in a good position to win a much bigger category than desktops.

Linux on the desktop has been around for a long time. So were jeeps, before large numbers of them started showing up in suburban driveways, in the form of SUVs. At the time of this writing (early January 2010), desktop Linux is still a jeep at the pre-SUV stage. It also has been a decade (or more) since many of us (myself included) began predicting that personal Linux computer sales would hockey-stick in the next year. Alas, the market share estimates are still low, even if they're not flat: 2.14% (from W3Counter), 0.67%, (from StatCounter) and 1.02% (from NetApplications).

As always, there are encouraging signs. CES this year featured lots of Linux-based devices. Lenovo showed the IdeaPad U1 (an odd but inventive Linux-Windows hybrid) and the Skylight, which is due to be released in April 2010. HP floated the Mini 5102, offering Linux as one of several operating system options. These are all in the Netbook class, which has a lot in common with MP3 players before the iPod came along, and smartphones before iPhones came along—meaning that Netbooks are ripe for an Apple offering that changes the whole game.

The rumor is that Apple will come out with a “slate” or a “tablet” or something else that will be old news by the time you read this. Apple's offering, however, matters less than its strategy, which Keith Hopper (keithhopper.com), a technologist with NPR, explains this way:

Apple's genius is finding an immature market where progress is logjammed, and building a whole new vertical silo around a piece of gotta-have-it hardware. They did this with the iPod in the MP3 player market, and they did it again with the iPhone in the smartphone market. Apple was brilliant to recognize that the MP3 player and mobile markets were actually immature and suffered from compatibility, usability, and performance issues that could be addressed by slick and robust vertical integration. Never mind that this was bad news for many customers, who in essence get locked-in by the integration.

But, while Apple goes vertical, Google goes horizontal. For example, Google created Wave to break the logjam in several categories at once, including instant messaging and group editing. Google created Chrome and Gears to provide rich client-side support for Web-based apps. All are open-source platform planks, both for Google and for people who want to use them (and improve them). They go horizontal so everybody (including Google) can build all kinds of vertical stuff on them.

Those platform planks are the Google Chrome OS, about which the company blogged this, last July:

Google Chrome OS is an open-source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at Netbooks. Later this, year we will open-source its code, and Netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010....

Google Chrome OS will run on both x86 as well as ARM chips, and we are working with multiple OEMs to bring a number of Netbooks to market next year. The software architecture is simple—Google Chrome running within a new windowing system on top of a Linux kernel. For application developers, the Web is the platform....And of course, these apps will run not only on Google Chrome OS, but on any standards-based browser on Windows, Mac and Linux, thereby giving developers the largest user base of any platform.

They added:

Google Chrome OS is a new project, separate from Android. Android was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of devices from phones to set-top boxes to Netbooks. Google Chrome OS is being created for people who spend most of their time on the Web....

But, while Chrome OS has to compete with Windows, Mac OS X and a zillion Linux distros, Android has an easier job—and potentially a much larger marketplace. Although Symbian, iPhone, RIM and Windows Mobile all have much bigger market shares than Android, they still are mostly held captive to partnerships between phone makers and carriers. Android was too, with early versions, but that changed with Nexus One, which launched in January 2010. Nexus One is the closest thing yet to a white-box phone design—one anybody can use, with any carrier, and improve at the base code level as well. Think of it as the smartphone equivalent of an SUV that anybody can make.

Application portfolios (among which Google's are becoming essential) will help sell units, but Nexus One's independence from makers and carriers is what will expand the market's envelope. The Nexus One is not made just for Verizon or Vodaphone. It's horizontal, and it's open. You can add value to it with more than just apps.

The Nexus One isn't quite as slick as the iPhone, but its evolutionary path (and therefore that of Android) has none of the iPhone's proprietary roadblocks and speed bumps. While Google has surely annoyed “partners”, such as Motorola (whose Android-based DROID was upstaged by the Nexus One), it also has opened a path toward a liberated smartphone future. As the Nexus One improves (to the Nexus Two and Three?), it's on track to score big in a place that's even more personal than desks and laps: the hands, pockets and purses of phone users everywhere.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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