Linux Foundation: mobile Linux needs "magic" to beat Apple

Linux logoApple turned up the heat in the mobile market last week when it unveiled its new iPad mobile computing device. Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, has responded to Apple's product launch with a candid appraisal of Linux's strengths and weaknesses in the mobile market relative to Apple's mobile operating system.

Zemlin, one of the Linux community's most vocal advocates, speculated last year that Linux could eventually become the dominant operating system for consumer electronics products. His argument was based largely on the assertion that Linux's lack of licensing costs will make it the most practical and affordable option for hardware vendors.

In his latest blog entry, Zemlin contends that Linux still has the price advantage, but he acknowledges that the open source operating system still can't deliver a user experience that competes with what Apple is offering to consumers. The missing ingredient, he says, is "magic."

"Apple is unmatched at creating a cohesive experience. While many question the revolutionary impact of the iPad, Apple's consistent user experience is far closer to magical than most things currently running Linux. It may be easy for us to bash Microsoft every other week, but Apple is a true competitor," he wrote. "[It has] the polish, the focus on usability and ease of use, the application and hardware integration all to make using their technology a seamless and elegant part of your day, instead of a constant struggle with technology."

Although there are a number of compelling open source technologies for building rich user interfaces, such as Intel's Clutter framework and Nokia's QML, these are still at relatively early stages of adoption and aren't yet widely used. Zemlin points out that Apple is moving quickly—the open source software community will have to jump ahead if its wants to be able to truly compete. Such an effort will require broad collaboration between major Linux stakeholders. Fortunately, says Zemlin, the Linux Foundation has a battle plan and is preparing to launch a new initiative that will help conjure up a fresh infusion of magic.

"While we're strong on price, we still have a ways to go to compete. The Linux Foundation isn't just going to complain about the need for more 'Magic' on the Linux platform—we are going to do something about it," he says. "Stay tuned over the next few weeks for big news on just how we will accomplish this."

A point that seems to jump out from between the lines in Zemlin's blog entry is that it reflects the growing sentiment within the commercial Linux industry that Apple, and not Microsoft, is the real competitor in the consumer space. Take a look at how closely Zemlin's commentary mirrors the following snippet from Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth's 2008 OSCON keynote: "I think the great task ahead of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something that is stable and robust and not so pretty, to something which is art. Not emulate, but blow right past Apple in the user experience we deliver to our end users."

Canonical, Shuttleworth's company, launched the Ayatana project in order to pursue its goal of building a more artful desktop. Part of the underlying vision of that project is to produce a free desktop that is designed by designers instead of programmers. Intel is adopting a similar philosophy with Moblin and producing some compelling results.

The Linux Foundation, as a vehicle for coordinating corporate and community engagement around the Linux platform, could potentially help to harmonize some of these disparate platform beautification efforts and bring some much-needed consistency to the mix.

Interoperability, a different kind of "magic"

Although Apple has a wide lead in the general quality of the user experience, there is another kind of "magic" that Linux has in abundance: interoperability. Due to the general openness of the platform, Linux has the potential to support integration with a much broader range of third-party technologies.

We got an in-the-trenches perspective on this issue from Hal Steger, the VP of marketing at Funambol, a company that makes open source synchronization software that is compatible with a number of different mobile devices and platforms. Based on the company's experiences, he says that open Linux-based platforms like Android are easier for Funambol to support.

"It has been impossible for an independent open source developer such as Funambol to access certain basic parts of iPhone (such as the calendar, and presumably this is the same on iPad) whereas on Android, there are no similar limitations," he told us in an e-mail. He thinks that Apple needs to reach out to open source software developers and loosen its restrictions on the iPhone software platform.

"There was no mention of open source and iPad in the same sentence anywhere [during the iPad press conference], which given Apple's proprietary culture and penchant for complete control, is not surprising," he remarked. "If [Apple] really wanted to capture the attention of developers and perhaps steal some of the momentum from Android (which is enabling a broad range of mobile devices and apps), it would seem that Apple would at least throw a bone to the open source community, but there was none."

There is clearly a certain class of functionality that will be absent on Apple's platform due to the closed nature of the platform. Linux-based technologies could potentially have an advantage if they are open enough to enable some of the things that Apple doesn't permit. The extent to which this competitive advantage will help Linux is debatable. Apple has its own end-to-end ecosystem that mitigates the direct need for third-party interoperability in some specific cases.

As mobile Linux continues to gain broad traction, competition from Apple will force open source software developers to think hard about usability and how to deliver a comparable user experience.

Source: ars technica

Tags: Apple, iPad, Linux

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