ARMing desktop Linux

For a brief time in 2008, Linux actually owned a segment of the desktop industry: netbooks. When netbooks first showed up, they ran only Linux. Microsoft panicked and brought XP back from the dead, offering it for next to nothing to netbook vendors and thus successfully fighting off the Linux challenge. 

That was then -- this is now. Today, Linux netbooks are still popular, though not as much as they once were. ARM-based netbooks, are on their way and, since these systems can't run Windows, Linux has the potential market all to itself. The real question is: will PC vendors choose to offer low-cost, less than $200 netbooks?

ARM Holdings, the company behind the ARM Cortex processor family, wants to see this happen. It's not that ARM sees a big future for itself as a desktop/laptop processor company. According to Simon Segars, executive vice president and general manager of ARM's physical IP division, ARM decided to enter this market mainly to counter Intel's moves in the mobile phone market.

"We are more worried about Intel encroaching into the high-end of smartphones, than we are about netbooks," said Segars. "If ARM is successful in devices like netbooks, it will be a nice incremental revenue for the company."

This is not exactly the kind of enthusiastic support Linux fans or vendors would like to see.

The latest iteration of the ARM Cortex dual-core A9 processor, which runs at 2GHz, is fast enough to go up against Intel's netbook processor of choice, the Atom. With its lower cost and low power consumption -- less than two watts -- the 2GHz Cortex is ideal for low-cost netbooks.

That is, if anyone will build them. Freescale has the silicon necessary to take the ARM processors and turn them into netbooks. Pengatron, a Taiwanese OEM, is the only company I know of that actually ships ARM and Linux powered netbooks.

It's rather annoying. With the Linux netbook threat mitigated, Microsoft is re-closing the door on XP as fast it can; if Microsoft has its way, the only netbooks you'll be able to buy are deliberately crippled systems with Windows 7 Starter Edition.

Don't believe me? I quote Microsoft's Steve Ballmer: "Our license tells you what a netbook is. Our license says it's got to have a super-small screen, which means it probably has a super-small keyboard, and it has to have a certain processor and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

That's so Microsoft. Once the company feels like it's on top, it immediately start dictating to the market how things are going to be from now on. With Linux still around, though, it doesn't have to be that way.

I think though there is a market for full-powered netbooks at a $200 price point, and that means Linux. Ubuntu already runs on ARM, and I expect Google's Chrome operating system to run on ARM-powered systems.

It's that last option that offers desktop Linux its best chance for not just a come-back, but a real shot at becoming an important desktop operating system. I see a $199 ARM-based netbook with Google's name on it and Linux in the engine room selling well. I'd buy it. More important, I can see millions of users, much to ARM's surprise, buying one. Here's hoping it happens.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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