HP: The Linux distributor?

Hardware companies don't tend to have their own Linux distributions. IBM uses Linux everywhere, but they don't have their own Linux. Dell will be happy to sell you notebooks and netbooks with Ubuntu or a workstation or server with RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux). But, no major OEM (original equipment manufacturer) has had a house-brand Linux... until now.  HP has recently bought not one, but two Linux distributions.

Surely HP is not getting into the Linux distribution business? Are they!?

HP first acquired its own Linux distribution bough Palm to get its hand on webOS. For some reason, a lot of people seemed to think that Palm was still using its old proprietary operating system, Palm OS. Nope. WebOS has proprietary extensions but this mobile device OS with its Linux kernel heart has more in common with Android and MeeGo than it does with its proprietary fore-bearers.

HP seems to plan to position webOS as a competitor to those mobile Linux operating systems. To be exact, rather than just use it to create a 21st century Palm Pilot or yet another smartphone, most analysts think HP has its eye on using it in their own Linux-based iPad competitor. Officially, HP is only saying that they're planning on using it for Internet-connected printers.

Somehow, even though printers are still a big part of HP's business, I can't see HP spending over a billion bucks just to add Internet printing capabilities to their printers when they could do that by simply incorporating IPP (Internet Printing Protocol) into their printers for nothing.

The other Linux distribution that HP just bought for its own use is BIOS vendor Phoenix Technologies' HyperSpace . HyperSpace is an instant-on, light-weight Linux distribution, like Splashtop. These built-in to the chipset Linux distributions are now included by many OEMs on their notebooks. The idea is that by letting the user boot-up a fast, minimal Linux environment for e-mail and the Web, their laptops will be more attractive to buyers.

HyperSpace has several built-in advantages over its competitors. First, it uses its own HyperCore virtualization so that a user can start using Linux in the foreground to start a Wi-Fi connection and start using Firefox for Web browsing while Windows is still booting up in the background. Once Windows is up, you can then toggle back and forth between the operating systems. In the last version I checked out, you could also read some, but not all, Windows documents from within HyperSpace even if you didn't bother to start Windows.

In addition, HyperSpace comes with its own built-in mini-office suite: ThinkFree Office. Of course, you can always use Google Docs, Zoho, or even Microsoft's Office Web Apps from HyperSpace.

HP isn't commenting at all on what it's planning on doing with HyperSpace. Let me speculate though. No one out right buys Linux distributions unless they're planning on developing around them. Historically, HP does a good job of supporting Linux on the server, and a lousy job of supporting it on the desktop.

So, what I suspect HP is going to do is indeed incorporate webOS on its tablets, printers, and other devices. There, it will become HP's do-everything device operating system.

HyperSpace, probably under a new name, will show up on all HP laptops, netbooks, and desktops. But it won't be as the primary operating system. That will still be Windows. Instead, HyperSpace will be the instant-on options for all its PC lines. I also see them working on improving virtualization integration between Linux and Windows to make using them together as transparent as possible. In HP's ideal world, users won't know whether they're using Linux or Windows, they'll just know they're using HP. The end result will be that by 2011, everything HP sells will have Linux hidden inside it somewhere.

The one thing I can't see HP doing though is releasing its Linux takes to other people as full Linux distributions. Instead, I see HP using its Linuxes to add value to their own offerings, not as something they'd sell, nevermind give away, to other vendors or users. HP will do what it needs to do to keep from running afoul of the GPL, but that will be it. 

What do you think HP has in mind? I'd like to know.

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