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Smartbooks: Embracing Linux With Open ARMs

Smartbooks: Embracing Linux With Open ARMs

Will ARM-powered smartbooks make all the difference for Linux? There's no unanimity of opinion in the FOSS world, except perhaps the general agreement that the $200 units Freescale and Qualcomm debuted at Computex are, well, interesting. Unlike Windows, most Linux software is "only a recompile away from running on ARM," noted Slashdot blogger Peter Brett.

By Katherine Noyes
06/18/09 4:00 AM PT

Asus notwithstanding, netbooks have received a great deal of attention in the Linux community for their role in gaining wider acceptance for our favorite operating system.

So, when Freescale and Qualcomm recently debuted a line of what they call "smartbooks" at Computex -- prominently featuring ARM processors and priced as low as US$199 -- the blogosphere had no choice but to sit up and take notice.

"Good opportunity here," wrote jginspace on Slashdot, for example, where close to 300 comments were made on the topic. "I hope the application availability is going to be good -- as a Nokia Tablet user I've been running a variant of Linux on an ARM processor for some time now and I can't wait to get my hands on an ARM netbook."

'I Don't Want Some Half-Assed Toy'

Similarly: "The most interesting part is that those devices have integrated CPU/GPU/Video Accel. on a single chip," added moon3. "Something that Intel, AMD and nVidia [have been] pursuing for a long time, but these ARM based solutions from Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others are delivering now and the performance/power consumption ratio is already impressive."

On the other hand: "I looked at the pictures in the article and was crestfallen," countered fnj. "I don't want some half-assed useless handheld toy.. I want an ARM powered *real, usable* laptop with an 8.9-11.1" display, *readable outdoors in daylight,* with a real keyboard, that will be everything that all netbooks to date have emphatically *not* been. Something with true 20+ hour battery life while doing useful work.

"It should have WiFi and mobile broadband," fnj continued. "An ARM would be more than powerful enough for taking notes, surfing, reading and replying to email, etc. Ubuntu 9.04 would be just perfect. I would pay real money for this."

On the competing HP2133, "you can barely read the display in a dark room, let alone daylight or even a bright office," fnj asserted. "The Lenovo X301 is about the closest I have come, but it is a long way from where it needs to be, and brutally expensive."

'I'm Going to Be Watching'

The ever-watchful minds here at LinuxInsider are always on the lookout for controversy; with that last comment, we knew we'd found it. Quick as a flash, our trusty blog reporter donned her "L" cape and took to the streets of the blogosphere for some additional insight.

"I'm going to be watching the way this plays out with great interest," Slashdot blogger Peter Brett told LinuxInsider. "One of Microsoft's trump cards in the desktop/portable wars so far has been the large amount of existing third-party Windows software. However, much of this is for the x86 architecture, and [it] may take a while for it to be ported to ARM."

Most Linux software, on the other hand, "is only a recompile away from running on ARM, and I expect fully featured distributions for these new portables to appear very soon," Brett added. "Will the lag time allow Linux to gain a strong foothold on the platform? Time will tell."

This 'Blunts the Past FUD'

Lower-cost Linux devices "will further force Microsoft to gut its cash cow by lowering prices," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "This will mean less money to throw at markets they want to buy, so the benefits on the short term will be unpredictable and widespread."

The fact that the machines are ARM-based "blunts the past FUD where MS just accused people of reformatting the devices with a printed copy of Windows," Mack added.

Microsoft's only current offering on the platform, of course, is Windows CE, Slashdot blogger drinkypoo pointed out.

'Waiting for Pandora'

"I like my wince-based (and ARM-based) HTC Fuze fine, but only now that I've hacked it to smithereens -- and I bought it only after seeing video of Android booting on its cousin, the Touch Pro," drinkypoo told LinuxInsider via email.

"Linux on ARM is pretty much like Linux on x86, though; frankly, even running Angstrom Linux on my iPaq H2215 is essentially like running it on a PC, except that it has a different boot loader," he added.

Nevertheless, the demonstration of devices running Linux and even Android "signals the belief that customers are waiting to buy them," drinkypoo noted.

"Android is a start, but I'm waiting for Pandora," Damian Yerrick, a Slashdot blogger based in Fort Wayne, Ind., told LinuxInsider.

'Scaled-Down Laptops' No More

Several bloggers pointed to marketing as an issue that could make or break ARM's impact on Linux.

The main thing ARM will mean for Linux is "dramatic power management improvement," Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean told LinuxInsider. "This will enable netbooks to hit unprecedented battery life while pushing towards lighter, cooler-running devices. Netbooks will finally edge into the realm of 'really powerful phones' and away from 'scaled down laptops.'"

Marketed properly, smartbooks could offer people "a great computing experience without being a replacement for anything," he explained. "To do this really well, Android is crucial. It has a developer community that will allow application options to expand and meet user needs. It also has a consistent theme and presentation that is lacking on just about every operating system except Mac OS X."

'An Uphill Struggle'

Indeed, "ARM can succeed *IF* -- and that is the big if -- it is marketed right," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed in an email message. "Right now, customers see netbooks as 'baby laptops' and expect them to do the same things as big laptops, only slower. The ARM will need to be marketed NOT as a netbook but basically as 'Internet on a stick,' since that is what they will be good at."

Considering how much even in the FLOSS world isn't yet compiled for ARM, however, "I foresee ARM as an uphill struggle, especially when they are selling refurb XP EEE Netbooks on Woot for $150," hairyfeet told LinuxInsider. "Unless they can get them at the sub-$150 or even the sub-$100 price point, I just don't see them getting any traction."

Then, of course, there's the heavy marketing Microsoft is likely to do for Win7, hairyfeet pointed out: "The buzz will most likely cause consumers to flock to Win7-based netbooks," he predicted. "Let's face it -- with such a low price point and with few heavy hitters backing ARM, it will be hard to get any eyes at all compared to the MSFT advertising juggernaut. Say what you will about MSFT, but they aren't afraid of spending the money when it comes to advertising."

'A Bit of a Yawn'

Not everyone felt netbooks are key to Linux's market success, however.

"Netbooks are sexy little computers, but they brush up against the 'not a computer anymore' threshold and hence come with nuanced annoyances," Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider. "This is probably the last thing Linux needs to gain market share."

Linux gets more "bang for the buck competing somewhere real on the desktop, not in niche markets," yagu asserted. "Netbooks are niche; netbooks are the new tablet PCs. Those never took off either."

So, "nope, this isn't Linux's opportunity," yagu concluded. "Played well, it's some publicity for; played poorly, it's another ding against. Other than that, it's a bit of yawn."

'The Year of GNU/Linux on ARM'

Still, ARM's potential could make it "a major battleground in the war for freedom in IT," blogger Robert Pogson told LinuxInsider by email.

"While ARM has been widely used at the low end of processing power, nothing prevents its use in the higher end using clustering technology," he asserted. "I would love to see AMD produce a 1024-core server chip using ARM. I bet that would change things."

With only a few cores, "ARM would easily be able to do anything we do now with x86," Pogson explained. "I especially like that M$ has not bothered to port to it. They are in the 'first they ignore us' stage of Gandhi's paradigm."

Yet "ARM will take its place in the world without Wintel's participation," he predicted. "The world is bigger than Wintel. 2009/2010 will be the opening round with netbooks. I expect the lessons learned will make 2010 the year of GNU/Linux on ARM on all platforms."


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