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Linux and Mobile Computing: Where Next?

Does Linux have a prominent place in the future of mobile computing?

Linux has built its reputation as a server operating system as a premier platform for the Web servers that power the Internet and a key building block in grid computing. But does it have a prominent place in the future of mobile computing?

Total computing mobility is a dream that we haven't quite realized... yet. I remember in the late 1990s hearing stories of how the Internet will bring us new levels of computing freedom. Our smart homes would be wired for everything. Educated and respected "visionaries" got up and talked to huge audiences about how "smart refrigerators" were going to call up WebVan and order milk when we were running low. I was told that I was going to be able to heat up the hot tub via a web browser on my cell phone before leaving work so the temperature was perfect when I got home. I was assured that I would so need and want those features that I would be willing to pay for them as would everyone else. Well, I have yet to get a hot tub or Jacuzzi; I still have an old-fashioned bathtub that's dumb as dirt and when I need milk I go to the store. We were going to so need e-mail that we would all be sending it constantly from our smart phones and from PDAs powerful enough to replace our laptops. It hasn't gotten there yet despite glimmers of hope. Check out the form factor of the OQO (www.oqo.com) that only come with Windows XP for an operating system - though a quick Web search will find many references to the device running Linux. That's what I want, complete with full voice and data communications capabilities and unlimited battery life. Okay, maybe that would be hitting the technology lottery but it's what I want. And since I'm musing...I want pervasive high-speed Internet access, I want it in the coffee shop, in the car so I can look up directions even when I am 100 miles from anywhere, and I want all-I-can-use bandwidth no metering required. Oh yeah - and I want it cheap.

So what role does Linux play in all of this? Well perhaps the place Linux enables this new mobile society is to provide the infrastructure as a new type of wireless broadband ISP emerges. Building new communications systems can be expensive but leveraging commodity hardware and Open Source software could keep down the total cost of entry for new service providers. WiMAX (www.wimaxforum.org), the IEEE 802.16 standard, is technology that would transmit wirelessly for a range as far as 30 miles. This solves the last mile problem rather nicely and would give us more freedom. New wireless ISPs can provide the connectivity to large geographies but they still need to provide the authentication and other services that go along with it. Enter Open Source. Using Linux servers that provide authentication databases stored in OpenLDAP (www.openldap.org) or providing billing data and other information stored in MySQL databases (www.mysql.org). Caching could be provided by Squid (www.squid-cache.org) to help speed performance. Other services like e-mail and Web mail could be offered on Linux servers too.

Finally, Linux could be the basis of a new best-of-breed mobile device that uses power so efficiently that my batteries last all day, if not forever, maybe with some kind of kinetic charger that adds battery life when you drop it. Since Linux doesn't have a graphical system hard-wired into the kernel maybe some creative group of programmers could come up with a new interface that works even on those tiny portable screens. Maybe something as unique as Sun's Project Looking Glass (www.sun.com/software/looking_glass/) but that uses the handheld's real estate more efficiently. What might make the device more interesting is to make it completely stateless, a thin client that logs you into the network via biometrics like your thumbprint so if it was stolen it would be useless and your personal information would be safe on secure servers not the device.

So why, you may ask, would this happen as an Open Source product rather than a proprietary product? The answer is collaboration. The next-generation device and ISP have a better chance of success by virtue of the collaborative model where no one organization takes the risk of failure and everyone can share in the success of a new product. A truly open collaborative platform would allow a number of vendors to leverage each other's work into a solution that could really power next-generation mobile devices. Well I am off, I'm out of milk, my refrigerator didn't tell me I was running low.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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