Thinking Past Platforms: the Next Challenge for Linux

Doc Searls recently posted his last SuitWatch. It’ll be sad not to see the email every other Wednesday, but the reasoning does make sense. The form and flow of a text email newsletter really aren’t congruent with Docs strengths. It’s good to hear that we’ll get to see even more writing from him on the LJ site as a result of this though, so I think it will be a net win. On to the content of the last SuitWatch, the following really struck me:

That’s the gauntlet I want to throw down on this, my last SuitWatch. I want to challenge the big hardware OEMs — Dell, HP, Lenovo, Sony and the rest of them — to break free of the only form factors Microsoft will let them make, and start leading the marketplace. Make cool, interesting, fun and useful stuff that isn’t limited by the Microsoft catalog of possibilities. Stop making generic stuff. Grow greener grass beyond the Windows fences.

A few weeks ago I was talking with folks who worked inside one of the large hardware OEMs. Somewhere in there they told me about their “Linux strategy”. I told them they needed a “Linux strategy” about as much as a construction company needs a lumber strategy”.

If you’re going to have a Linux strategy, make the strategy about getting past an OS-bound view of the world. Because the big difference between Linux and Windows is that you can build anything you want with Linux. With Windows you can only build what Microsoft lets you build.

Think about it…. Does Microsoft tell HP how to make printers? Does it tell Sony how to make camcorders or flat displays? Hell no. Then why do those companies let Microsoft tell them how to make desktops and laptops? Another way of putting it: Why should the choice of personal computing hardware form factors be limited by the things Windows can do? Why wait for Microsoft to provide the base designs for desktops, laptops, notebooks and hand-helds? Why not let your engineers’ imaginations run wild? Why not listen to customers who want personal computers that do stuff Windows can’t? (Or Apple’s OS X, for that matter.)

The short answer is politics. “All technical problems are political as well as technical”, Craig Burton once told me. “And the technical problems can always be solved”. The politics of OS-choosing is the politics of marriage. The big hardware OEMs have been acting for decades like they’re married to Microsoft, which is why they act as if putting Linux on boxes with Microsoft logos tattooed on their butts is like cheating on their spouse.

OEM adoption is a critical step in Linux crossing the next chasm. I’ve stressed this here too many times to remember. Looking back a couple years, I’d have thought someone would have broken ranks by now. The politics are proving quite strong. I thought the catalyst would be Apple. My thinking was that it would give other hardware vendors a glimpse of what could be accomplished with a unix-based system. That wasn’t enough. Whether huge numbers of Dell customers yelling loudly on the IdeaStorm site is enough remains to be seen. Having a hardware OEM look at Linux as the building blocks to innovation is a great analogy. The first one who’ll get that remains to be seen.


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