I get a lot of questions regarding the status of Linux on tablets, mobile devices, and other platforms running ARM processors. Most end users and consumers simply want to know if/when Linux would ever find its way onto the “system on a chip” architecture.
The reason we haven’t seen Linux on these devices is simple: supporting the various ARM processor derivatives has become almost impossible to manage. The developers of the Linux kernel were looking at over 70,000 lines of new code for each new kernel release for ARM technology, versus roughly 5,000 lines of new code for x86 technology.
That all changes with 3.7. The upcoming Linux kernel release will finally, and officially, support the following ARM processors:
- Calxeda’s Highbank ARM server processor
- The Versatile Express ARM-based developer board
- Marvell’s ARMADA SoC processors
- Altera’s ARM processors
- Picohip’s picoXcell chip for femtocells
That short list pretty much covers everything from high-end data center-level servers all the way down to mobile devices.
It’s officially “make or break” time for Linux on tablets and smartphones. Why? Not only does this release further (and more efficiently) support ARM, it also has far more support to HID (Human Interface Designs) — especially multitouch interfaces on capacitive touchscreens. All is ripe for Linux on mobile.
Up until this point, Linux had the perfect excuse for not finding its way onto tablets. And let’s face it, if Linux is to succeed in the mobile space, tablets are the perfect platform. But should they not be able to make the leap now, the chances will grow continually slimmer of this ever happening — fast!
Canonical is perfectly primed to bring Ubuntu (and Unity) to tablets and now the proverbial floodgates have been opened — thanks to the developments in the kernel — for this to happen. And, after becoming quite the fan of Unity, it is clear that the interface is perfectly suited to the tablet (more so than any other interface I have used).
But this isn’t just about mobile devices. Server architecture could easily make a mass migration from x86 to ARM. With a shift to low-power chips and the focus moving to parallelism and frequent use of large amounts of data, the concern is on power. ARM solves that concern and, with the ability to easily support Linux now, those servers could be low cost on both power consumption as well as platform. Data centers are now looking at a cost effectiveness that hadn’t been an option prior to kernel 3.7.
It’s amazing what a difference a release can make. Although most desktop/laptop Linux users aren’t nearly as affected by 3.7, as a whole, the Linux landscape should see a significant shift once this kernel is out in the wild and in use. The big test will be how Linux then manages to gain footage on the mobile space. Should that happen, everything in the PC industry could shift.
Although I am a fan of Android, I will happily drop my current tablets for a Ubuntu and Unity-driven device. I have enough faith in the interface that I fully believe it could really take the tablet stage and demand the spotlight from Android and iOS. More power and more flexibility in an elegant multitouch interface. What more do you want?
So, to the developers of the Linux 3.7 kernel — a huge cheer should ring out for you. This is an important development that could bring huge change across the nerd-scape for Linux, mobile, and server technology.