Linux On a Mobile PC

Why on Earth would you want to run Linux on a mobile platform? What a waste of time. Pause and... <insert Microsoft bash here> <insert "Choose a Mac." here> <insert "YOU SUCK" here> Feel better? On a web server? Absolutely. On a desktop? Probably. There are a lot of great distributions and great interfaces available. Desktop hardware is so integrated that you don't need a whole lot of drivers. Most vendors are just using a basic Intel or AMD chip, chipset, integrated audio, and Ethernet. But on a laptop? It just isn't ready. And a lot of the reason is that vendors just haven't committed to making it happen. There are several levels of Linux commitment a PC vendor can offer. The least involved is providing drivers. The most involved is preloading a distribution and selling it as a full-blown Linux machine. Though the software is free, this is an extremely expensive proposition for the hardware vendor. Once you preload, the customer has a right to support and configuration help. Linux technical specialists aren't cheap. And I haven't yet mentioned the perennial question, "Which distribution?" Everyone has their personal favorite. From time to time, we've dabbled in Linux offerings. Our ThinkPad T30 series had a Linux preload 5 years ago and sold very few. Since the market seems to be asking for more, we announced a ThinkPad T61 with a Linux preload a few weeks ago. Other than a few developers and hobbyists, I don't expect us to really sell all that many. There's no value proposition for it. Yeah, you'll avoid the Microsoft tax, but if you're a business your IT shop will spend far more in support costs, lost user productivity, and sleepless nights. The end user story is about the same. Who wants that? So why does Linux on a mobile not make sense? Here are just a few examples.

Battery life Linux power management sucks. There are a couple of exceptions to this, but from everything I've ever seen, switching the same hardware from Windows XP to Linux means you give up at least an hour of battery life per charge.

Connectivity How long after announce was it before Wi-Fi drivers were available for the Centrino platform? (Answer, if I remember correctly: A long time). How many people are running WWAN today? With instructions like as clear as THIS, it is a wonder anyone can get Linux to run at all. Most people I know are over the hobbyist stage of PCs where they are willing to spend hours tweaking their systems. Now people just want it to work. And they want it to work with their Bluetooth headsets and reliably sync with their Treos. Windows generally will with a minimum of fuss. Getting the same result in Linux requires a degree in OS management.

Lack of interest from the vendors This is simple. There is no money in it for them. Unless you are a big distribution house that sells fat, expensive maintenance contracts, Linux is a black hole. You don't make money selling your software. (It's hard to compete with free). The code you do release is reverse engineered and used by your competitors. Then you get a bunch of end users slamming your phone lines wanting to know why the latest driver release won't work with their obscure TurboRedSusian v3.6 distribution. Where's the business model in that?

Specialized hardware Mobile machines have a lot of it. I read with some amusement a blog that said Gnome doesn't understand widescreen. (What's to understand?) What about other things like digitizers? Wacom is pretty well understood, but what about up-and-coming technologies like the one N-Trig is offering. How long will it be until a Linux hack is available for that? And it will be a hack.

Enterprise management This isn't exactly mobile-specific, but one of the nice things about Windows is that it is a known entity and has any number software vendors offering to do things that enterprises want to do. These are basic things like deployment, backup, and specialized security. The landscape is changing, but until discussions titled "facilitating risk calculation when using Linux full HDD encryption" go away, no enterprise in its right mind will commit to something so unknown. Now it's your turn. I know some of you have been itching to get to the end of this post so that you can start flaming. So flame away, but how about sharing a few tidbits at the same time. Answer the poll question if you'd like and then give us some additional feedback in your comments.