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If Windows is closing down, Linux may remain the only major open OS

August 10, 2012 22 comments

Disclaimer: The following is only speculation but it pretty much resonates with current events.

Based on the events of recent weeks, it very much looks like Microsoft is heading to make Windows a closed ecosystem (a la Apple). They want to make both the hardware and the OS and third-party applications can only be sold with their approval and only through their App Store (with a 30% commission to Microsoft).

What points to this?

1) It is now widely known that Metro applications will only be allowed to get installed through the Microsoft App store. Windows8 RT – the new Windows variant for ARM-based devices – will only run Metro applications. Even on Windows8 x86 – which is supposed to be the more open variant, costing more – you will not be allowed to side-load a Metro app. Windows8 x86 will be able to run traditional desktop apps, which Microsoft now calls “legacy”.

2) Microsoft made an attempt to completely remove support for creating “legacy” desktop applications with their free development tools (Visual Studio). Seeing the outrage, they quickly retreated and promised to leave desktop development tools in VS but the intention was pretty clear: they want to force developers to stop developing desktop apps and only write Metro apps which can be distributed exclusively through Microsoft.

3) The desktop user interface has been made very unappealing (ugly), all of the eye-candy brought to you by Aero has been killed. Microsoft says that this is for a uniform desktop interface between Windows8 x86 and Windows8 RT but it can be easily seen as on other attempt to make the desktop a second-rate citizen which should be phased out. I, for one, doesn’t see any problem with a configurable Aero which runs all features when the hw is strong enough and runs less features when the hw is weak (or battery life is important).

4) Microsoft has come out with the Surface tablet/notebook hybrids and it intends to sell it under their own brand name. This was a cold shower for their current hardware partners (ASUS, Acer,Dell…etc) which have a wide variety of Windows-based products (desktops, laptops, tablets).

5) Game developers/distributors Valve and Blizzard have criticized Windows8 and its newfangled, closed approach. They also fear loosing their distribution market and getting slapped a 30% Microsoft-tax (the rate of Microsoft’s commission when you sell your application through their store).

If this transition is in fact under way, Microsoft obviously needs their hw partners only until the transition is finished and they are ready to ship their devices in volume. (Without this, Windows shipments could collapse prematurely, since partners would start fleeing platform) After this, they will only need “dumb” ODMs since they want to get the majority of the profit on hardware sales as well. When Microsoft is ready, it simply stops selling Windows OEM licences (just like Apple did anno) and all current partners must stop shipping their wares with Windows.

Hw partners will of course suffer deeply since the majority of their profit comes from selling Windows-based devices. They probably see what is going on since, for example, Acer stood up and used very strong words to discourage Microsoft from their course of actions (“This is not something you are good at”, “think twice”…etc) which is pretty unusual between partners. Other hw partners (ASUS, Dell…etc) remain silent but I am fairly sure that their think-tanks are now on afterburner, trying to analyse the situation and possible escape routes.

Now, the situation of Microsoft hw partners is pretty bleak. The second most popular OS, Mac OS X, is not available for them. If Windows OEM editions become unavailable as well, they will only be able to switch to Linux or Android on their laptop/desktop product lines.

How could the big hw producers counter this threat?
1) Using Android (Linux)

Most of the big-name producers already have Android tablets and hybrids in production so hardware wise they could easily step-up the game. However, Android completely lacks a desktop environment which is essential for productive work done with keyboard and mouse so it is currently good for content consumption but not for productive work. It completely lacks high-quality productivity applications and it will take a lot of time by these are created or ported (a proper office suite, Photoshop…etc). It is rumored that Google is preparing a kind of desktop solution with Android 5 but since it is not expected to support standard desktop Linux applications that will not help the productivity-application shortage at all.

2) Using Desktop Linux(es)

The more clever hw producers (like ASUS & Dell) established a Linux-program long ago (ASUS netbooks, Dells older offerings and its new ultrabook…etc) even if the main purpose was only to squeeze Microsoft for lower OEM Windows licence fees. These producers are not completely unprepared but their sales will still suffer greatly if Microsoft decides to move quickly.

The Linux desktop(s) are absolutely ready feature and usability wise. Unity, Gnome3, KDE, MATE and others are all ready for wide-scale deployment. In fact they may prove more familiar to users than the Metro/desktop frankenstein of Windows8. These desktops have been perfected in the recent years and can actually beat the dumbed-down Windows8 desktop in eye-candy and usability.

Hw-related engineering is also not a problem since there are a huge amount of people and companies which have intimate knowledge of the Linux kernel and available for subcontracting. For example, Ubuntu has a fairly strong backing company (Canonical) which has already proven itself for the hw producers (by providing engineering-services for devices coming with Ubuntu). So customizing desktop Linuxes for their hardware and selling them would be no problem at all.

The Linux-desktop is also much stronger in productivity applications than Android. It has LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Evolution and other fairly usable desktop software. In addition, it can run a wide array of Windows desktop applications in Wine.

However, the commercial application ecosystem on the Linux-desktop land is way underdeveloped compared to Windows and that would make Linux-shipping desktops unviable for a lot of people. LibreOffice may do for a lot of people instead of MS Office but the lack of AutoCAD, Photoshop and other productivity applications may be a deal breaker (some of these don’t run in Wine at all or only very old versions).

General hw support has come a long way in recent years but exotic hw is still badly supported. Nothing makes a customer more annoyed than buying a peripheral (say a webcam) which doesn’t work with their Linux desktop. This also needs a lot of work but the most important hw is supported adequetly now (like wifi, , bluetooth sticks, 3G modems…etc).

3) Android and Linux desktop together

A lot of new devices can benefit from a hybrid like Ubuntu for Android. A Transformer Prime with a docking station could use the Android interface when detached and use the desktop interface for productive work when docked. Due to the recent merging of Android and mainline Linux kernels, this route is becoming viable. Even traditional, non-touch desktops could benefit from this arrangements since Android has a lot of small but useful consumer applications. These can run on the desktop in windowed-mode and used with mouse and keyboard just like normal desktop programs.

So, which alternative?

All alternatives are fairly problematic for the producers’ point of view (from the current. Windows-based, status quo) but I believe the best solution is the hybrid model, since it brings together the ecosystems of Android and desktop Linux. But even in this scenario, the relatively underdeveloped state of the commercial application segment may be a show-stopper so I think they need to work in this direction. Some ideas:

First of all, the producers need to orchestrate their Linux efforts in order to solve the problems within acceptable budgets. Since they need solutions very quickly, it may cost them a lot and spreading these costs may make the task more palatable. The efforts also need to be centered on one Linux distribution because the current variation between Linux distros is simply too wide for the hw producers to stomach (also for cost reason). Ubuntu is the obvious choice here since it is specifically developed for consumers in mind and it is the most ahead of partnerships and market recognition. After the commercial Linux ecosystem becomes big enough, other distros will come ahead in any case.

Hardware producers should very quickly set up an organization which has the sole purpose of making the commercial application ecosystem of Linux viable. Normally, this is not their responsibility but now they MUST make this happen or face the consequences of loosing their market completely. The new organization should directly approach major software providers and provide funds for porting efforts where necessary. Some game developers like Valve are already in the process of creating support for Linux but most commercial app developers would not port anything until demand is high enough (chicken-and-egg) so they need some persuasion to port their applications.

If the hw producers can strengthen the commercial Linux application sector sufficiently quick, they can create an escape window for themselves in case Microsoft really wants to follow the Apple-model and lock-down Windows. If this scenario comes about and only Microsoft and Apple remain standing that would be a complete disaster for the current crop of PC harware manufacturers and consumers alike. If Linux/Android can become a viable contender in the desktop/laptop segment that will give way to a huge transformation on the market with Linux market share reaching 20-30% in only a couple of years.

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