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When One Linux Project Wins, All Linux Triumphs

To say there was a lot of Linux news coming out of CES last week was an understatement. As I watched the morning TV shows present their inevitable "look-at-what-the-nerds-have-made-this-year" segments from the CES floor during the event, I had the distinct pleasure of turning to my family many times and proclaiming: "See that? Runs Linux."

It was difficult to contain my enthusiasm. Between Android, Moblin, and other embedded Linux news, it was clear that free and open source software maintained a large presence in Las Vegas--to the point where traditionally hyped players like Apple and Microsoft were left out in the desert cold.

How bad was it? Try this: the HP Slate computer with which Steve Ballmer showed off Windows 7 during his Jan. 6 keynote address? It turns out that HP is apparently already planning an Android version of the exact same device. 

So much for Redmond's market exclusivity.

The TechCrunch story above also points out a very notable statistic: it reported that there are more than 10,000 Android applications available. With, the story added, more likely on the way given the expected popularity of Google's Nexus One phone, which had pretty much stolen the show even before CES started.

Meanwhile, Intel announced its AppUp center, a new application store for Moblin- and Windows 7-based applications: the fruits of Intel's Atom Developer SDK program.

It's very clear that developers have a clear choice of software platforms on which to develop their applications, especially in the mobile arena. Very few people outside of Microsoft's offices are publicly looking forward to Windows Mobile 7, and even the venerable iPhone is becoming dented as a reliable platform, as Apple's continued chokehold on "permitted" iPhone apps and the company's continued insistence on using a sole US cellular provider is making the iPhone less of a sure bet for mobile application developers.

There's even a redefinition of what "mobile" even means. The proliferation of smartphones, smartbooks, and tablets at CES gives new meaning for how consumer hardware is going to look. My personal favorite for redefining hardware is the Lenovo's IdeaPad U1 Hybrid, the 11-inch Intel-Windows 7 laptop that has a multitouch screen that can separate and be run as a standalone Snapdragon-Linux tablet with Lenovo's own Skylight GUI.

With all of this focus on embedded Linux success, there are those who have asked the question: is all this news good for Linux as a whole? After all, Sean Michael Kerner pointed out last week, while Android is Linux-based, Google's first priority with the Nexus One is Android, not Linux.

I would have to disagree with this notion, though I can see where it's coming from.

While it is true that ultimately Google is interested in its bottom line (and as a public company, it has to be), you could also make the same case for Intel's involvement in Moblin, or Red Hat's work with Red Hat Enterprise Linux, or Novell's efforts with SUSE Enterprise Linux... and on and on. But to date, no commercial Linux success has proven detrimental to Linux as a whole.

The truth is that any commercial involvement with Linux, as long as that involvement is done with good free/open source citizenship, is beneficial for Linux, regardless of whether it's called "Linux." Success brings users, developers, and hopefully revenue for more development, which should bring more success.

This call for concern has been raised many times before (and I have to be forthcoming and list myself among the concerned at times): "will Company X detract from the success of Linux?" It was raised when Red Hat became a commercial success with fears of another commercial operating system monopoly (which can't happen in Linux). The alarm was raised again when Canonical's Ubuntu distribution became so popular among desktop users--would Ubuntu eclipse Linux? So far, that hasn't happened, either.

And now Android is greeted with similar suspicion.

This seems to be a keystone event in the development of any successful Linux project: when it gets big enough to bring out those with concerns about the project overwhelming the rest of the Linux ecosystem. This despite the fact that to my knowledge no Linux project, commercial or otherwise, has ever wiped out its competition.

The simple truth is that free and open source development will foster innovation that all Linux programs can tap into, and thus the diversity will always be maintained. Will some projects fade away? Of course, as developers drop ideas or move on to other things. Like any ecosystem, new things are born and weaker things die.

But the overall diversity of Linux will be maintained and, as we've seen in just this past week, that diversity can become even stronger.

 

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