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Lilliputian Linux, and Do We Need More Critics?

Good things come in small packages, as they say, and that’s perhaps never been more true than it is today, thanks to the emergence of increasingly diminutive devices equipped with Linux.

Perhaps most notable of late is the US$99 Marvell SheevaPlug, a wall-wart-sized device that runs Linux on a 1.2-GHz CPU with 512 MB of RAM and 512 MB of flash — and with power consumption of just 5 watts.

The SheevaPlug was introduced back in February, but enthusiasm on the Linux blogs just goes on and on.

‘Year of Linux in the Outlet!’

“If they come out with a Gig of memory, I’ll buy 20 or so and set up my own compute farm,” wrote Stephan Schulz on Slashdot, where hundreds of comments greeted the announcement. “I’d really like to get my hand on a sample and a cross-compiler to see what 1.2 GHz ARM means for my application …”

Similarly: “There are countless uses for something like this,” concurred sootman. “2009 will be the year of Linux in the outlet! ;-)”

Nearly a month later, Thomas Teisberg over at the Linux Loop noted the related trend of quick-booting processor subsystems.

“It seems likely that, in the future, we will not have ‘a computer,’ but rather all of our devices will have computers in them,” Teisberg predicted.

‘I Love Those Devices’

Where is it all leading? We here at LinuxInsider couldn’t resist asking around.

“I love those devices,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. “I’m certain one of these would make a great small firewall.”

Along similar lines: “Since I started using thin clients, I have been a fan of small, cheap computers,” agreed blogger Robert Pogson. “I have been testing a thin client that bolts onto the back of an LCD Vesa monitor and costs about (US)$50.”

There is “no need for the classic ATX box on our desks any longer,” Pogson told LinuxInsider by email. “Notebooks will do, except for small screens and keyboards. The tiny things with external monitors/keyboard/mouse are the way to go, whether they are thick or thin clients.”

In fact, “the boffins can put them in my refrigerator and toaster too, if they find a task for them. The little darlings are so cheap they can put them everywhere,” he said.

“One of the beauties of the small, cheap computers is that M$ cannot pay to have them suppressed,” Pogson pointed out. “M$ is not big enough to bribe the world that many times. GNU/Linux and other free software will have its day.”

‘The Big Uh-Oh’

Indeed, this is “where Linux really has a shot,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet told LinuxInsider by email. “With the new 1GHz ARM chips you can have netbooks and other PC appliances that get 12+ hours on a battery, will allow you to surf and check your email, and there is NO way for MSFT to horn in on this like they did the x86 netbooks, as the only MSFT OS that runs on ARM is WinCE, which frankly isn’t very good.”

Appliances such as netbooks/nettops and thumb-drive-sized PCs may end up “a BIG chunk of Linux adoption, same way as most cell phones now use an embedded Linux,” hairyfeet added. “This also makes it easier for Linux developers, as they don’t have to support the huge amount of hardware out there like you do with a traditional desktop.”

Challenges to be overcome? “The big ‘uh-oh’ is something that Linux will have to work hard on: Flash,” hairyfeet asserted. “From YouTube to banks, everyone seems to have embraced the Flash format, and currently it only works on x86. If these ‘micro PCs’ are to have a chance then they have to support the WHOLE web, and not just static web pages and email.”

Of course, the $100 price point for an ARM netbook “could make it so attractive folks will be willing to work around it,” he added. “I know I would.”

‘Linux Needs Critics’

There’s no doubt such innovations make the future look rosier than ever for our favorite operating system, so it’s hard to contain our enthusiasm. Of course, not everyone agrees –and that just might be a good thing.

Such a suggestion came up recently when PC World’s Keir Thomas charged that there are not enough Linux critics within the community, and that “if anybody in the community dares be critical, they get stomped upon.”

The problem with such a climate is that “it’s damning Linux to an eternity of navel gazing,” Thomas charged. “Nothing can ever get any better. The best hope we have are the instances where a few bright sparks, with their heads screwed on the right way, get together and make something cool…. But that’s rare and can’t be relied upon.”

‘Fanbois Are Making Me Homicidal’

Did bloggers sit up and take notice of this one? You bet your SheevaPlug they did — but a lot more than 5 watts were consumed.

“I have to admit, the fanbois are making me homicidal,” SatanicPuppy wrote on Slashdot, where more than 1,000 comments were hurled onto the table in short order. “I LOVE Linux. I love plain old Unix. I love the command line, and the cryptic commands, and man pages, and lynx and apt/yum. I like X windows and MC. I love building from source.

“And yet … It’s just a tool,” SatanicPuppy added. “It’s a good tool. It’s my favorite tool. But it’s just a tool. There is room for improvement, and, like any tool, there are places where it’s not useful.”

‘Zealots Make It Harder for Me to Sell’

“The pure unthinking zealotry” is the problem, SatanicPuppy wrote. “What I think Linux needs is the same thing I think Mac needs and Windows needs: the people on the inside need to start listening to people who aren’t already sold on their product. We have just as many fanbois as the Mac and Windows people, and we’ve got some of that persecution complex that makes the fanbois extra loathsome.

“Just calm down, take a breath, go use something different for a while,” SatanicPuppy advised. “Get some perspective. The real zealots make it harder for me to sell *nix solutions to the phbs because they’re coming to expect a bias.”

Now those are strong words indeed — if there’s anything *nix doesn’t need, it’s something that makes it harder to sell. What say you to this, members of the community? Does Linux need more criticism?

‘Under Every Rock on the Web’

“That’s a pretty hilarious idea,” Slashdot blogger drinkypoo told LinuxInsider via email. “Windows *and* Macintosh zealots have a bone to pick with Linux one way or another — not that the feeling isn’t mutual — and there’s plenty of us Linux users who have been completely brutal in every case.”

One “excellent” source of examples is Ubuntu Brainstorm, “the Ideastorm-inspired, Drupal-powered Web site expressly for the purpose of telling Ubuntu precisely what’s wrong with their Linux distribution,” drinkypoo added.

“GNU/Linux does not need critics,” Pogson agreed. “They can be found under every rock on the Web. Check out the forum on Desktoplinux.com, for instance.”

A few years ago, “it looked as if the trolls were winning,” Pogson noted. “Now they seem endangered. Their arguments just look silly in the face of school children and major organizations enjoying the benefits of FLOSS.”

‘Elitist Attitude’ Getting Stronger

What about the oft-discussed goal of widespread market appeal — are critics what’s needed to help Linux achieve that mainstream acceptance?

“I feel until the FLOSS developers get on board with making Linux friendly to use, it simply won’t ever reach mass market appeal,” hairyfeet said.

“The simple fact is [at the moment] the major Linux players are putting their money behind servers, which are CLI-heavy to save resources,” he explained. “But trying to squeeze a server OS onto a Windows user makes about as much sense as handing the average Windows user a PC running Win2K3 server and expecting them to know how to configure it. Most haven’t used a CLI since DOS, and many of the new generation like my boys have NEVER used a CLI and frankly wouldn’t want to.”

There exists in the community an “elitist attitude which I have seen getting stronger lately,” hairyfeet asserted. “There are many who DON’T want Windows users on Linux, since it will mean ‘dumbing down’ and making it more user friendly, GUI-wise.”

In the same way that “Apple laptops wouldn’t be nearly as popular if they had Dell prices, because then the owners couldn’t brag about having ‘the Ferrari of computers,’ so many Linux geeks feel like Linux loses its hacker appeal if grandma can use it,” he charged. “And without any major corp pushing Linux desktops, I just don’t see the drive, either in money or in leadership, to get Linux above 5 percent.”

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