Why GNU/Linux Is and Isn't like Windows

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Because GNU/Linux and Windows are competitors in the operating system space, people tend to treat them as if they were broadly the same. But one of the impressive things about the former is that it manages to match the latter on its home ground *and* do a huge number of things Windows cannot.

For example, the mainstream Windows code (not the quite different versions like Windows CE ) is essentially bound up with the Intel chip architecture (once upon a time, there was a version of Windows for MIPS, but that was taken out to the back and shot in 1996). GNU/Linux, by contrast, has been ported to dozens of platforms (I wondered whether we're up to the hundred mark, yet?)

And although some of these are dead-ends born of the archetypal hacker thought “I wonder if it's possible to get GNU/Linux running on *this*”, many are active projects; quite a few are commercial products – like these:

MontaVista Software, Inc., the leader in embedded Linux commercialization, today announced the general availability of new Market Specific Distributions (MSDs) of MontaVista Linux 6. By working closely with its semiconductor partners to deliver the right combination of features and functionality for each platform, MontaVista remains committed to providing the broadest hardware support in the embedded Linux market, and aligning the embedded Linux supply chain.

These MSDs are the first of a broad family of semiconductor feature-compatible, market specific Linux distributions announced in May. Built on a common framework, and optimized for the respective hardware platform and its target market, an MSD is designed to support the full breadth of functionality provided by the semiconductor vendors, be feature compatible with the semiconductor vendors’ Linux technology, and provide the value-add features and quality MontaVista is known for. MSD’s may be customized and optimized for the target application, allowing developers to easily create a tailored software distribution that fully exploits the hardware specific features.

The platforms are:

Versatile ARM1176 processor (arm_v6), Versatile ARM926 processor(arm_v5)

Freescale MPC8377, MPC8349, MPC8548, MPC8572

Intel x86 Pentium and Xeon

MIPS32 1004K, 24K, 34K, 74K cores on Malta platform

Xilinx ML 507 - Virtex 5 EDK Update

If you can slash through the dense undergrowth of marketing-speak in the second paragraph quoted above, what MontaVista is trying to say is that GNU/Linux is not only easy to port to new platforms, but is extremely customisable, so that companies can tweak it is all sorts of ways. Neither feature is true of Windows, which is essentially unportable and untweakable by anyone other than Microsoft.

As time goes on, and more and more chipsets are supported, with more and more “market specific Linux distributions” created for them, this chasm between GNU/Linux and Windows will grow ever greater. And yet, amazingly, GNU/Linux will still continue to beat Windows in the conventional server market, and to track and catch up with it on the desktop. What a wonder.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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