One of the surprises of 2008 was the runaway success of the ultaportable/netbook form factor. Now that systems running Windows XP are available people tend to forget that it was the low cost and small footprint of GNU/Linux that made this category possible in the first place.
Without free software, the new machines would have been forced to run Windows Vista, making them too slow and too expensive - and hence failures. It was only because Microsoft saw GNU/Linux walking away with this nascent market that it executed a massive U-turn over Windows XP, and allowed it to be installed on these systems.
Not unexpectedly, Windows XP models represent the majority of the ultraportable sector - after all, people naturally choose what they know. What is more surprising is that GNU/Linux is doing so well there. Figures vary, but it's clear that Windows does not dominate this new market anywhere near as much as it does on the traditional desktop.
Alongside price and performance, GNU/Linux has another advantage here Because Intel dominates the desktop as completely as Windows does (and largely for the same reason of duopolistic synergy), we tend to forget that Microsoft's main operating system only runs on Intel. That was not always the case: some years ago, Windows ran on other chips too, but these were dropped as Intel came to dominate, and Microsoft lost interest.
GNU/Linux, by contrast, has been ported to more and more hardware, because hackers were and are intrigued by the challenge of doing so.
As a result, it's now available on a dizzying array of systems. Although this has not been much of an advantage in the past, that may well change as myriad small, pocketable, mobile devices based on new chips emerge. The inherently portable nature of GNU/Linux, and vast pool of programmers with porting skills already out there means that it will probably turn up first on them, and with a wider range of powerful tools.
Here's a good example of what's coming through as a result:
Freescale Semiconductor is sampling a system-on-chip (SoC) expected to compete with Intel's Atom processor in the netbook market. Offered with an Ubuntu Linux-based reference design from Pegatron, the i.MX515 uses ARM's Cortex-A8 core clocked from 600MHz to 1GHz, and targets sub-$200 netbooks that offer eight-hour battery life.
The i.MX515 is the first of a series of i.MX51 SoCs to be announced in the coming months that will target a variety of mobile platforms, including automotive and general embedded versions, said a Freescale spokesperson. The netbook-specific i.MX515 is the first ARM-based processor to directly target the sizzling market for netbooks. The SoC will target lower-end netbooks with 8.9-inch displays that run Ubuntu Linux.
The i.MX515 reference design was developed jointly with Pegatron, says Freescale. It includes a board equipped with the i.MX515, plus a SGTL5000 low-power audio codec and Freescale's new power management IC, called the MC13982, says the company. Offered with Canonical's Ubuntu Linux distribution, the bundle includes Adobe Flash Lite and Flash Player.
In November, Canonical announced that it was porting Ubuntu Desktop Linux to the ARMv7 architecture, which is used by the Cortex-A8 and licensed by Freescale and TI, among others. Nokia has long sponsored an unofficial project to port Ubuntu to ARM, but with the Canonical port, ARM capabilities in the Linux kernel such as highmem support should enable compiling Ubuntu on ARM in its entirety, including OpenOffice and Java.
Clearly, there's momentum building around alternatives to the Intel chips. As the netbook market continues to grow, I expect we'll see even more activity in this respect, with GNU/Linux to the fore. Windows XP may be ahead on the first generation of the ultraportables, but that's just the beginning: the really interesting stuff still lies ahead.