Mobile Linux?

Last week, the BBC reported on an upcoming version of Ubuntu for ARM "netbooks". Pity there's no article history; the title (currently Ubuntu set to debut on netbooks) originally said "smartphones" and the meta tags still mention smartphones1 even though the article itself mentions nothing about Ubuntu on smartphones, but I could spend all day reporting on inconsistent reporting.

Linux on netbooks is nothing new -- the MSI Wind launched with SUSE (apparently SLED, but only on the U90) as an option and the Eee PC has a Linux option (Xandros, according to Wikipedia). Getting smaller, the N770/N800/N810 use Maemo. Smaller still, plenty of Motorola phones run MOTOMAGX, the G1 runs Android, and the Freerunner comes with less closed-source software than a typical PC.2

No, the real news is an ARM/Ubuntu deal culminating in an ARM laptop.3 The netbook market is currently dominated by the Atom (it's in the newer Eees and Wind), replacing higher-power Intel chips; no surprise, since there's no Vista for ARM.4 The main reason to use ARM is for battery life, and power isn't that big a restriction on a laptop -- the new Eees come with more watt-hours than my iBook G4!

What's going to come out of this? It's hard to say.

  • Better power management? With Linux running on so many lower-power things, you'd think the power management code was already pretty decent, but that doesn't stop vendors from rolling their own. Still, there are watts to be saved everywhere.
  • A better UI? Something written from scratch is unlikely, but anyone who's used Gnome or KDE knows there's a lot of room for improvement.
  • Mainstream ARM boards? Currently, the best option for a low-power server5 is a desktop Atom board.
  • Linux on more phones? There are an increasing number of devices filling the phone-computer continuum; this deal moves ARM into the computer end and Linux (more importantly, mainstream Linux apps; the kernel is just a small part of Ubuntu) slightly closer to the phone end.
  • A completely unlocked, reflashable phone with cutting-edge hardware, Linux kernel, running native Linux apps? I can dream, can't I?

Obviously, ARM is trying to establish a bigger presence in the "non-embedded" world. Maybe we'll even get Ubuntu on smartphones; two years is a long time to wait for Symbian to become open-source.

  1. Right now it says <meta name="Description" content="Mobile phone chip firm Arm signs up with Canonical to put Ubuntu software on smartphones and low cost laptops." />. I can't find a cached copy of the original article anywhere. 

  2. 100% FLOSS is an interesting ideal (I've yet to see a PC with a GPL BIOS), but OpenMoko seem to have managed it save for firmware running off-CPU, like for GSM/GPS. 

  3. Technology-wise, netbooks are just small laptops; functionality-wise, internet tablets (MIDs) are like small netbooks. 

  4. Though there were some ventures with PowerPC and Itanium (more on Wikipedia, Windows is only really available for x86-based platforms. Embedded versions don't count. 

  5. Or something that can run OpenWRT/DD-WRT. I don't see why people insist on getting wireless routers and sticking everything behind n layers of NAT when your average Linux box is a perfectly capable router, can do lots of other things (like Munin graphs), and actually gets patched once in a while. But that's a rant for another day. 

Teanlorg Chan
in Opinion

Airsource design and develop apps for ourselves and for our clients. We help people like you to turn concepts into reality, taking ideas from initial design, development and ongoing maintenance and support.

Contact us today to find out how we can help you build and maintain your app.