In FOSS Does "F" Have To Stand For Fabulous To Make Apple The Next Sun Microsystems? It's All About The User Experience

Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation writes in Business Week that the F in FOSS has to stand for fabulous, but if it does Apple could find itself as the next Sun Microsystems. It will take more than that.

You can't blame Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation for having sugar plum dreams of world domination for Linux. Between Linux itself, Android, Chrome, MeeGo and even the Linux underpinnings of the PalmOS, Linux is certainly poised to dominate the most important market in the technology world for the foreseeable future. Mobile computing will be King and as Zemlin says, Microsoft has been "relegated to an also ran", for now anyway.

But there is a long way to go before Apple winds up as the next Sun, possibly as Larry Ellison's latest Silicon Valley reclamation project. While Linux certainly played a major role in Sun's demise, Windows' Server success from NT 3.5 (yes I remember that one) to todays versions had a little something to do with it too.  And if you think Sun was the big loser there, let me throw another name out at you, Novell NetWare.

In fact there is another parallel to the server market with Sun, Linux, Microsoft and Novell.  Sun was the only one of the three that ran on specialized hardware.  Yes Sun offered Solaris for x86, but it was a very weak sister to Solaris on a SPARC server.  What gave Linux and Windows its edge was that it ran on off the shelf commodity hardware and gave users the choice to pick the hardware platform. Now of course Novell did too, but they just blinked and missed the whole Internet/IP revolution and become irrelevant software.

I do agree with Zemlin that "F" in FOSS has to stand for Free and Fabulous to really beat Apple. But the fabulous is not about shared development, it is all about as Zemlin said, customer experience. The mobile platform is not going to be dominated by Geeks who work at command lines juiced up on pizza and high caffeine cola.  It is about the interface and user experience.

That is where any would be power in the mobile market has to shine. Yes you can control more by controlling both the hardware and software. But the day may come when you can buy a hardware form factor independent of the mobile OS, just as you can in the server market.  In fact how about you buy a phone, pick your own OS and your own phone carrier? Hallelujah, what a great fantasy that is!

So could we get to the point that we have standardized mobile hardware and the user picks his OS? I think so.  But I am not sure how much shared development there is among the many Linux variants. As in any market, someone comes out with a desirable feature and other competitors copy or clone it. Whether open or not, everyone recognizes a good thing and will try to duplicate it.

There is another side to this story though. Would too many Linux competitors lead to too much fragmentation? This story in ARS Technica discusses this very issue. Here is what they see as the problem:

What is fragmentation?

When used to describe software platforms, the term fragmentation generally refers to the proliferation of diverging variants—a situation in which many custom versions of the software platform emerge and coexist with the original. Platform fragmentation can weaken interoperability because applications that are built for one variant might not work on others.

The Linux platform is particularly susceptible to fragmentation because its modularity and open license make it highly conducive to customization and derivation. Although mainstream Linux distributions are all functionally similar, there are a number of major areas where they diverge. Some examples include package management, preferred desktop environment, default application selection, file system layout, and software version choices.

The lack of consistency makes it difficult to build an application that will integrate properly across the broad spectrum of Linux distributions. This is why packaging, compatibility testing, and certain kinds of platform integration tasks are often done by the distros themselves rather than by upstream application developers.

The challenges are more profound in the mobile space than on the desktop because the degree of fragmentation is compounded by the fundamental differences between different kinds of devices. For example, applications that are built to support a specific form factor, screen resolution, or input mechanism might not be compatible with devices that have different characteristics in those areas.

Another issue that arises in the mobile space is that individual handset makers and mobile carriers will make their own changes in order to differentiate their products from competitors. Such changes can sometimes create additional compatibility pitfalls.

This is a real problem that Zemlin does not address. But I am not sure the Executive Director of the Linux Foundation would. Finally, let me throw one other thought out on this already too long ramble:

Don't count Microsoft out! They realize the stakes, they have the resources. The mobile market is not a sprint, its a marathon. Just as Linux shares the server market with Windows and not Sun or Novell, it may eventually share the mobile market with Windows too.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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