When was the last time we stood back and just marveled at how far Linux has come in the server, desktop and embedded spaces? Might seem a bit cliché to some, yet no one can argue that Linuxs progress has been truly remarkable.
Sparing you the "this is the year of the Linux desktop" type statement once again, I'd like to turn your attention to where I believe Linux is headed in 2011 and beyond. Considering some of the amazing milestones that have already been met, it'll be interesting to see if Linux can maintain its forward momentum.
Linux in 2010 held its own in the world of embedded systems, saw some successes in the server space in the enterprise world, and gained significant achievements in the desktop space as well.
So what could 2011 and beyond possibly hold in store for Linux enthusiasts?
Netbook adoption is just warming up
Putting aside the fact that in previous years the Linux PCs that were sold to the general public suffered some poor reviews due to the lack of market targeting, micro-OEMs have shown that it can work.
Emperor Linux, Linux Certified, System 76 and Zareason are each great examples of companies selling preloaded Linux computers to enthusiasts rather than peddling Linux machines to Windows users expecting a "Windows type" experience.
During much of 2010, I noticed the adoption of Linux netbooks beginning to heat up. Now as Google enters the virtual boxing ring with their own dual-OS offerings, Android and Chrome OS netbooks will help to get the concept of a Linux experience into big box stores sooner rather than later.
What will ultimately define success for Google in 2011 is their ability to make it clear to the average computer user that these new systems arent focused on running Windows software. This was an area Xandros, Linspire and gOS all neglected to communicate to consumers.
For any kind of Google success in the netbook space during 2011, it would be wise for Google to focus on their own systems, while allowing the smaller Linux OEMs to opt to continue targeting those who "get" what Linux is all about.
In short, stop trying to use Linux on the desktop as a Windows killer. The two platforms are catering to different segments of society.
Android and Chrome OS in 2011
I have nothing against Android or Chrome OS. We've seen Android answer the call in the mobile space against the mad march forward led by Apple's iOS on the iPhone. Furthermore, Chrome OS may indeed be useful for further knocking down Microsoft in the netbook arena.
Where I do see a problem is with Linux branding. Granted, there'll be those who claim that Google will ultimately become the Linux champion for the desktop space as 2011 unfolds. And yet I cannot help but feel that putting all our hope on Google for new Linux users is only going to create more problems, in that Google doesn't represent Linux in its entirety. We have enough problems here already with Ubuntu in this area.
My point being, don't kid yourself into thinking that Google's efforts here are automatically translating into something holistic for the Linux community at large. This is a pipe dream. Linux is the same thing to Google as Darwin is to Apple.
Im not saying Google doesn't give back to the open source community. Im merely pointing out that relying on Google as a vehicle to the mainstream user is not going to end well for anyone involved. So while blurred branding might not seem important now, it may be later on down the road.
The value of a Linux fragmentation
It has long been argued that one of the defining traits of Linux on the desktop is the fragmentation within the community. For true Linux enthusiasts, this is not a problem at all. Rather its a way of keeping the open source spirit alive its free, not centralized to one single entity, distribution or company. And to date, this has worked out very well, everything considered.
The flip side is that Linux on the desktop has become something that was nudged forward by those who are "in the know" versus users who have discovered it in a retail setting. So any singular focus within the industry has been almost entirely at the enterprise level, with some schools also leading the way. Obviously Linux hobbyists at home are a driving force here as well, but all of this could possibly change should Chrome OS become a smash hit at your local big-box store.
Google would end up taking the lead within the Linux mind share by introducing its own interpretation. Think Google's efforts won't matter? Think again.
Remember projects like OpenMoko? Thanks to Google Android, no one even realizes it's still around. Seriously, only a couple of years ago it was expected to be the concept that would bring mobile Linux efforts forward. And today? Nothing.
Are we ready to see if the same thing might happen with Linux on netbooks next? Do we really want to find out if Ubuntu's Canonical was the least of our problems with singular branding within the Linux ecosystem?
Linux challenges for 2011 and beyond
Throughout this article I have made Google out to be some kind of hidden threat to software freedom. I also realize this is perhaps a rather alarmist stance on the matter.
So let me say this. Google doesn't just take a "little bit" of a given market. Search, they own it. Mobile, they are on their way to owning it. The enterprise market, they are chipping away at it with their Web application offerings. Desktop Linux? Do we really want to wait and see?
Even more important, should Google become the de facto desktop distribution for most of the world? Does this really have any negative affect on the FoSS community at large? Clearly these are questions that I, like you, will need to wrestle with.
In my gut, I want to believe that Google is no more a threat to Linux than Apple is to BSD. Besides, should something amazing happen and Google managed to make Chrome OS a household name, would it really be so bad? Who would actually be harmed in Google finding success here and maybe finally providing us with that long sought after "year of the Linux desktop?"
These are the questions that will likely remain largely unanswered until we see all of Google's intentions, when the Chrome netbook OS is made public. If the new users it attracts are people who might never have bothered with Linux in the first place, then thats great and Chrome OS wont be a problem at all. Bundle that with a Google that makes a continued effort with their open source support and, again, I say thats fantastic.
Now some will argue that 2010 was a defining year for Ubuntu. So it stands to reason that 2011 might be a defining year for Google Chrome OS. In the end however, Fedora, OpenSuSE, and Debian (among other distros) will still be out there for those who choose to not follow the masses and instead, keep their desktop Linux experience focused on software freedom.
They may not have the media's ear quite like Google will. But distributions like these will still be there for the community, supported by the community.