July 8, 2010

The Fragmentation of Linux: Two Points of View

The fragmentation of Linux has become a hot topic in recent weeks as industry leaders debate how the community can collaborate to compete against single, vertical operating systems without creating an ecosystem that pulls the community in too many directions at once to be truly effective. As FOSS developers work at a fever pitch to create Linux-based OSes, handheld devices, enterprise-level servers, and mobile phones, the point at which they join forces can make the difference between getting a leg up on other operating systems and lagging behind.

Canonical COO Matt Asay says Linux has the opportunity to beat Apple's iPhone as long as developers don't stretch themselves too thin working on various iterations of the mobile platform.

"The mobile Linux market has always had more variants/distributions than sense, ranging from Google Android to LiMo to Moblin (now MeeGo) to Bada to WebOS to...you name it. [...] Meanwhile, Intel and Nokia have fused together their Moblin and Maemo projects under the MeeGo brand, while Samsung backs Bada and Google stands atop the heap with Android.

"To beat Apple, the industry needs to collaborate, even as it has done in servers to fix the Unix mess and meet the growing Microsoft Windows threat."

Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, has a slightly different take on the matter. He acknowledges that the application ecosystem is fragmented but says the real focal point is what's going on with the core libraries common to most forms of mobile Linux; namely, code contributions swim upstream to strengthen the overall code base.

"Linux distributions are... unified at the core library level. In addition to the kernel, you have projects like X.org, glibc, gstreamer, Gnome, QT, webkit, CUPS, clutter, etc. These are all example of core libraries that generally are included in almost every variant of mobile Linux; Chrome, Android, MeeGo, WebOS, LiMo, etc. They all use these same “base” components. In the MeeGo project, for example, the development philosophy echos this with an 'upstream first' mantra. Most of the actual coding for MeeGo or many of these other Linux distributions takes place upstream. That means that when Meego contributes upstream, all downstream distributions benefit. This is the same in the server and desktop market, and why it’s so important for distributions to focus their development upstream."

The issue is further complicated by a lack of a common API and user interface that leave a lot to be desired. The real question becomes at what point should the community pool work and resources to reach a common goal. Asay says it begins at the distribution level, however that means stripping away each distro's uniqueness for the sake of homogeny. Zemlin, on the other hand, believes the real unity comes from upstream collaboration.

Mobile devices aren't going away anytime soon, and Linux-based operating systems are clearly gaining a foothold within the mobile developer community. Whether Linux finds it strength in collaboration or compartmentalized development, it's still poised to emerge as a leader -- perhaps the leader -- in mobile computing.

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