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Community: War Installing GNU/Linux or The Any Box: Do We Share The Hardware or Raise a Bridge?

Feb 07, 2006, 23:30 (9 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Zeek Greko)

[ Thanks to Zeek Greko for this article. ]

The eWeek headline read "Linux Desktop Needs Major Vendor Support." A hopeful Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols' (SJVN) opinion piece that someday, somewhere, some company will have the guts to face down Microsoft and make it possible for anyone and everyone to easily buy a GNU/Linux desktop. The "some company" he was referring to was obviously the tier one vendors: IBM, HP, and Dell.

While we're waiting for these tier ones to become so inclined, perhaps the GNU/Linux community's appropriate course of action should be to do what we should have done long ago. That is, to create a Linux-specific hardware vendor (or vendors) of our own. Or did we somehow miss a memo somewhere that the PC hardware business had reached its quota of billionaires? Why are we, as a community, so quick to hand off the marketing of GNU/Linux to the current tier one PC builders who are in fact heavily dependent on, and umbilically tied to Microsoft? Even if they do start selling Linux boxes in some earnest fashion, the "We Recommend Microsoft Windows" banners aren't likely to disappear any time soon. And, moving their GNU/Linux offerings from ten pages deep on their web sites, to nine or even eight pages deep, is hardly what we can call making progress. Lets stop begging, shall we?

Sharing The Hardware

The fact that anyone and everyone can't easily buy a desktop PC or laptop with the GNU/Linux distribution (distro) of their choice pre-installed has nothing to do with hardware availability. The problem is lack of cooperation. Stemming from the various commercial Linux distributions' unwillingness to share, in common, generic PC hardware builders. Each separately seeing themselves as fledgling operating system (OS) empires in their own right. Wanting to become the Pepsi to Microsoft's Coke, on the desktop. They each want to have their own hardware vendors. This fact was made quite evident to me when I had a communication with the principal of one of the top free/commercial Linux distributions. His response to the idea of the various distributions sharing common Linux specific hardware vendors was this: "We're gearing up to provide a (Distro Name) Certification service. Also we plan to solicit community members to submit professional quality compatibility reports. This will be announced after we finish expanding our web sites.This may sound like the kind of thing that has been done before, but we plan to leverage the heck out of it."

"No hint of community spirit or a willingness to share anything are evident in that response. A certification service? Compatibility reports? Ostensibly for all the hardware vendors that are eagerly waiting in line.

While it is hard not to admire his hopeful, confident, can-do attitude, what immediately comes to mind is "Raise The Bridge!" For those unfamiliar, "Raise The Bridge" is the punch line to a favorite joke of Doc Searls from Linux Journal.

It's about a tiny flea, back floating down a river, while naked and aroused. As he approaches a bridge that crosses over the river, he urgently starts screaming at the top of his squeaky little flea lungs "Raise The Bridge!, Raise The Bridge!" Ostensibly to avoid damaging the bridge's structure with his mast-like maleness. Obviously, that flea has a grandiose and irrational self image. Ditto.

Insufficient Market Volume Presently To Go It Alone

No one desktop GNU/Linux distro, at this point in time, has sufficient market penetration to warrant its own hardware vendor. If they all shared a vendor or vendors however, their combined market share might be large enough, even now, to carry some sway with regard to Linux specific hardware, device drivers, and DRM issues. Also, some meaningful promotion and mainstream advertising might even be possible, now.

The problem SJVN points out regarding brand recognition (or lack thereof) can be worked around. By using quality brand-name components inside their high-end offerings, and prominently featuring them (ASUS Inside, for example) the generic PC vendors, being simply assemblers of these top-quality components, would be very credible and likely do quite well in this regard. Then there's the Mac-Tel factor for high-end hardware. Undoubtedly, few Linux distros will miss the opportunity to come up to speed on that platform. Ironically, they will be sharing common hardware, will they not?

The "War Install" and The "Any Box"

The "War Install," so dubbed by a friend after reading a previous Linux Today article I wrote, "Should Hardware OEMs Be Picking Linux Distribution Winners?" It explains both concepts in fairly fine detail and remains relevant today.

To summarize: When War Installing, the various Linux distributions would acquire any currently available Linux-capable PC being offered for sale anywhere on the market. They would each then build a custom installation recovery disk image specifically for that hardware (everything just works out of the box) for either dual booting or as a replacement for whatever OS the computer originally shipped with. The downside to this method is the "Microsoft or Unwanted GNU/Linux distro tax" that must be paid.

The Any Box concept starts at the OEM generic PC Vendor, who would assemble Linux capable PCs and Laptops. Any GNU/Linux distribution would then be invited to create a custom recovery disk images for installation on that specific hardware (again everything just works out of the box). The purchaser/end user would then choose their favorite Linux Distribution or any dual boot combination of Windows/Linux or Linux/Linux, with no unwanted software taxes paid.

Conclusion

I can't image a better way to truly give the customer/end user a choice of GNU/Linux Distributions than when all of the various distros are sharing the exact same hardware. Nor can I imagine any more totally supported platforms than by way of the "Any Box" concept. Together as a community we can create our own tier one hardware vendors and reap the benefits and cost savings of collectively promoting the GNU/Linux OS platform. Alternatively, each of the various desktop Linux distributions can continue going it alone with their flea-sized market shares screaming "Raise The Bridge! Raise The Bridge!"

Copyright 2004-2006 Zeek Greko lhdkproject@yahoo.com
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