Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Desktop, schmesktop meets Android

Seven years ago the IT tabloids were full of the question, "when will Linux take over the desktop?" I wrote in Linux Today:
Why the desktop fixation? Soon desktops will be history. The concept that you might need to go to a machine on a special desk in a particular room of your house whenever you need computer power will be as obsolete as the notion of going to the handpump over the well in the yard any time you need water. Houses have been "wired" for water and electricity for 100 years. It's everywhere you need it, just turn the tap or flick the switch. The same will happen with computer power this decade. Significant appliances will have all the computer power they need built-in, and connect to the web to make themselves accessible. people will wear whatever computer power they need while they're on the move. Linux is already shaping well in this world of "imbedded logic".

When news of Alexander Bell's wonderful new invention, the telephone, was telegraphed around the world over 100 years ago, the mayor of Chicago was particularly enthusiastic. He said that he could foresee the day when every city would have one of these devices. As it turned out, telephones played in a different market to telegraph offices. And Linux will play in a different market to desktops.
On the surface, things haven't changed that much. The IT tabloids are still pounding the same question. It is becoming less relevant with every passing day.

By comparison, when last did you last hear someone ask:
"When will Windows take over from MVS/zOS on the mainframe?"
The answer is, never. zOS is doing just fine on the mainframe, but the mainframe has become a niche market. A pretty capacious niche too be sure; IBM sells more mainframe MIPs than ever before, but the market place has moved on. There are far more MIPS on desktops than there ever were in data centers.

The turn of the desktop will come too. It has served us well, and old-timers like me will remember it with fond affection for many years to come, but we will have our work cut out trying to explain to the next generation why anyone would bother to go to a clunky box on a desk in a particular room room whenever they needed computer power. That's just about as absurd as suggesting that whenever you want to make a phone call, you have to go to a clunky black Bakelite contraption attached to a long wire in a particular room. Actually, I still have one of those, but it isn't Bakelite. Maybe I could find a retro model in a novelty store? Nowadays most folk, even in developing nations, carry slim portable wireless phones around with them. There are more mobile phones than fixed line phones in the world today, and mobile adoption is accelerating. They are typically powered with 200MHz or better processors. That's 5 times more processor power than NASA used to put the first men on the Moon in 1969 (they used three IBM System/370 model 168 systems, each sporting 12.5MHz processors).

So great, we have access to these powerful portable processors, and each has instant access to the Internet. But what can we do with them? Well, make calls to be sure. But modern cell phones can do a lot more than just that. The biggest inhibitor to their full exploitation is, as is ever the case with computers, the effort required to develop a full software stack, from the kernel all the way up to the glitzy user interface.

Until now.

Google has changed all of that. They have announced and made available a full open source stack for mobile phones. It covers everything from the bare metal upwards, and it's extensible. It's called Android. Check the link for an overview of what's in it, plus some videos. The cost of entry for would-be mobile phone manufacturers has suddenly plummeted. PC sales have already started declining in the East, where gizmo adoption rates are high. Stand by for descent, the West. And stop worrying about when Linux will take over the desktop:
  1. It never will
  2. No one will notice, or care (except for the Smithsonian)