Linux's New Game: the Internet of Things

Last week I wrote about my recent talk on open access in which I pointed out that Linux has become the undisputed leader across huge swathes of computing. One area where that's not true is on the desktop, of course, and I fear it's unlikely to...


Last week I wrote about my recent talk on open access in which I pointed out that Linux has become the undisputed leader across huge swathes of computing. One area where that’s not true is on the desktop, of course, and I fear it’s unlikely to change, because of network effects: while there are lots of people using Windows and Office, and swapping data, it will be very hard to get many of them to switch. So that raises an interesting question: given Linux’s success, where does it go next?

One other area where Linux has not been very successful so far is gaming. Obviously, that’s not a central concern for readers of this column, but it’s an important market, and not one that is completely dominated by one vendor, as on the desktop. That means it might be possible for GNU/Linux to make inroads here, if the right offering came from the right vendor.

That company might be Valve, which started offering some of its games on GNU/Linux earlier this year, and also announced that it would be launching an entire gaming platform: Steam Machines, using a Linux-based operating system which it calls SteamOS. The reasons for that move are interesting: Gabe Newell, the co-founder and managing director of Valve, described Windows 8 as “a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space”. Although it’s hard to know the motivation for such a put-down, it may well reflect the arrival of an inflection point in gaming.

Certainly, Valve is taking its move to Linux seriously. For example, it’s just joined the Linux Foundation:

Valve is well-known for its award-winning games and Steam, a leading software distribution platform with more than 65 million active accounts. The company recently announced the SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system that will power its Steam Machine living room devices.

“Joining the Linux Foundation is one of many ways Valve is investing in the advancement of Linux gaming. Through these efforts, we hope to contribute tools for developers building new experiences on Linux, compel hardware manufacturers to prioritize support for Linux, and ultimately deliver an elegant and open platform for Linux users,” said Mike Sartain of Valve.

If it does indeed “compel hardware manufacturers to prioritize support for Linux”, Valve’s development of SteamOS could well have knock-on effects throughout the entire gaming ecosystem, and that has to be good for Linux as a whole. But probably of more interest to Open Enterprise readers is another announcement from the Linux Foundation:

The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the growth of Linux and collaborative development, today announced the formation of the AllSeen Alliance, the broadest cross-industry consortium to date to advance adoption and innovation in the “Internet of Everything” in homes and industry.

The Internet of Everything is based on the idea that devices, objects and systems can be connected in simple, transparent ways to enable seamless sharing of information and coordinated and intelligent operations across all of them. As no single company can accomplish the level of interoperability required to support the Internet of Everything and address everyday, real-life scenarios, a united, pan-industry effort is needed to deliver new experiences to consumers and businesses.

The Linux Foundation’s Executive Director, Jim Zemlin, has a good blog post on why open source is the natural – and probably only – way to realise the Internet of things:

A big impediment to the Internet of Everything’s economic promise and technology advances is interoperability — the ability to intelligently share information across electronic devices and systems regardless of product brand. The Internet of Everything doesn’t work unless “everything” works together.

There have been attempts to solve this interoperability challenge the old-fashioned way. Some vendors have tried to corner the market with proprietary solutions — a crippling contradiction when the basic requirement of the Internet of Everything is interoperability across vendors and brands. Standards-setting initiatives have cropped up — inefficient when, say, every company that makes a tiny light switch needs to implement a 500-page technical spec.

The answer here is clear: Open source is the ideal, neutral staging area for collaboration that can provide the interoperability layer needed to make the Internet of Everything a reality. When everyone jointly develops and uses the same freely available code, companies can develop innovative services on top of it and get them to market faster. This is why the majority of the consumer electronics industry, the high-performance computer industry, the world’s stock exchanges, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and every Android device rely on the Linux kernel. Why would all them to try and produce non-differentiating infrastructure software that requires a development pace of 10,000 lines of code a day?

Put simply: Shared development is the way of addressing complex technology and business opportunities.

That’s a crucially important point, and explains why any attempt by a proprietary company to create a closed framework for the Internet of things is doomed to failure. The Linux Foundation is also particularly well placed to shepherd such an open-source approach, as Andy Updegrove explains in an interesting <a h ref=“”>post on the subject.

The new project goes by the name of the AllSeen Alliance, and its Web site already has further information on how things will work in practice. From the FAQ:

The AllSeen Alliance is a nonprofit consortium dedicated to driving the widespread adoption of products, systems and services that support the Internet of Everything with an open, universal development framework that is supported by a vibrant ecosystem and thriving technical community. The Alliance hosts and advances an industry-supported open software connectivity and services framework based on the AllJoyn open source project with contributions from Premier and Community Members as well as from the open source community. This open, universal, secure and programmable software connectivity and services framework enables companies and individuals to create interoperable products that can discover, connect and interact directly with other nearby devices, systems and services regardless of transport layer, device type, platform, operating system (OS) or brand.

As for AllJoyn:

Initially developed by Qualcomm Innovation Center (QuIC), Inc (Qualcomm’s open source subsidiary), AllJoyn is an open, universal, secure and programmable software connectivity and services framework that enables companies and enterprises to create interoperable products that can discover, connect and interact directly with other AllJoyn-enabled products. AllJoyn is transport-, OS-, platform- and brand-agnostic, enabling the emergence of a broad ecosystem of hardware manufacturers, application developers and enterprises that can create products and services that easily communicate and interact.

As you might guess for a project predicated on extremely wide uptake, the licence for the code is minimalist: AllSeen has adopted the OSI-approved ISC licence, which states:

Permission to use, copy, modify, and/or distribute this software for any purpose with or without fee is hereby granted, provided that the above copyright notice and this permission notice appear in all copies.

The software is provided “as is” and the author disclaims all warranties with regard to this software including all implied warranties of merchantability and fitness. In no event shall the author be liable for any special, direct, indirect, or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of this software.

To access the AllJoyn source code, it seems that you need to create an account on the site. The documentation, however, is freely available. As well as Linux and Android, Arduino is also supported, which is good to see.

Whether you believe the hype already flying around – the Linux Foundation press release quotes Gartner as saying that the Internet of things will add $1.9 trillion (sic) to the global economy by 2020 – this is certainly an important initiative, both for the Linux Foundation and for Linux.

That’s because all of Linux’s huge advantages – zero cost, reliability, security, customisability – are vitally important in this sector, which is about linking together things that have not hitherto been connected. Adding computational and networking capabilities to this new class of devices must be as cheap as possible, and that means Linux (and other open source components) have an unbeatable advantage here. It is therefore surely only a matter of time before Linux dominates this sector as completely as it does elsewhere.

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