Archive for the ‘ Linux ’ Category

Linaro – Open Source Glue

Last week ARM Ltd. and its licensees Freescale, Samsung, ST-Ericsson and TI, along with IBM, launched Linaro, a new organization to “foster innovation in the Linux® community through a common foundation of tools and software”.

My first reaction to the Linaro announcement was “O Joy, another Linux knitting circle”.  But I am happy to say that Linaro appears to be what the industry really needs – the glue between silicon and software (my apologies to fans of Linaro stallions). Instead of creating standards or aggregating yet another embedded Linux distribution, Linaro has the stated goal of enabling existing (and new) software to run on actual silicon in the marketplace.

Deliverables of such an effort include

  • device drivers
  • board support packages (configurations)
  • Linux kernel patches
  • tools to support integration of these and other contributions

Let’s take a stroll down .org memory lane to compare Linaro’s goals to the aspirations and accomplishments of other initiatives, past and present:

Embedded/Mobile Linux .org Roll Call

OSDL Mobile Linux InitiativeMLI put together requirements for a mobile Linux-based platform as a de facto soft standard (as OSDL did with Carrier Grade Linux).  Unlike CGL, MLI members were disappointed by the lack of actual software deliverables (that is, participants played chicken with contributions).  MLI did serve to help popularize Linux as a foundation of mobile telephony.

CELF – the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum worked to create standards for Linux in a range of consumer electronics, including mobile telephony; these efforts were very skewed toward particular member implementations and did not survive industry scrutiny.  CELF also instigated real  implementation by funding kernel contributions by maintainers (e.g., for flash and power management) and today survives as a sponsor of Embedded Linux Conferences.

LiPS – the Linux Phone Standards Forum had the explicit goal of creating Linux-based standards for mobile terminal devices.  Led by FT/Orange, ACCESS and VirtualLogix, they published several generations of specifications and were in the process of launching an open source TAPI project when the organization was absorbed by LiMo in 2008.

LiMo – the LiMo Foundation strives create the “first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile device”, realized as a distribution shared by its members and deployed in member-built handsets.  Despite these lofty goals, LiMo is hampered by a highly stratified and expensive membership structure, tortuous IPR with limited out-licensing,  slow-to-market specifications, and most importantly incomplete validation suites and an MIA SDK.  While LiMo claims dozens of phones as compliant, the basis is a very rudimentary specification, with little or no visibility to applications developers (cp. Android).

Linux Foundation / MeeGo – In 2007, the Linux Foundation was born out of the merger of Free Standards Group (home of the Linux Standards Base) and OSDL.  They have been very successful in continuing work on LSD (fighting fragmentation) and in sponsoring a range of kernel engineering and other development activities.  They recently announced their acceptance of hosting MeeGo, the result of merging Nokia’s Maemo tablet platform with Intel’s netbook/MID Moblin project.  MeeGo targets a range of embedded/mobile applications, including mobile handsets.

So, Linaro is NOT a standards body, not a distribution supplier and not a mere cheerleader, as far as I can tell.  They seem to have a clear vision of what they want to do – enable Linux on real silicon.

To that end, they are not getting fancy, especially in terms of licensing.  Unlike LiPS, LiMo and others, they have pledged to adhere to existing licensing regimes and not indulge in license proliferation (beyond the profligate OSI corpus).  In particular, the Linaro IP Policy refreshingly stipulates

  • respect for and adherence to upstream licenses
  • commitment to use only existing, OSI-approved licenses

Cautious Optimism

Like embarking on a second (or third) marriage, launching a new .org for embedded Linux represents the triumph of optimism over experience. Despite (or because of?) my personal involvement with several of the .orgs above,  I believe that Linaro has achievable goals and the members and means to achieve them.  In particular, Linaro sets its sites on providing and improving infrastructure, an area where open source and .orgs have classically excelled.

So, keep your eyes on Linaro.  Not the horse, but much needed glue.

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Cavium Acquires MontaVista – Embedded Linux Consolidation Continues

The original MontaVista Hardhat Linux penguinYesterday semiconductor supplier Cavium Networks announced its plans to acquire embedded Linux pioneer MontaVista Software.  MontaVista, founded in 1999 by Jim Ready (of Ready Systems / VRTX reknown) was among the first to commercialize and evangelize Linux for embedded designs.  It was one of the few remaining independent vendors in the embedded Linux business when Cavium snapped it up yesterday for $16M in cash and $34M in stock.

When Silicon Buys Software and Services

The acquisition is the latest in a string of M&A moves by silicon vendors hoping to gain an edge in filling sockets by providing software tools, platforms and services.  The most recent, most visible and most lucrative was Intel’s buy of Wind River earlier this year for a cool $884M, most palpably to support design-in of Intel’s mobile/embedded Atom architecture family.  Others include

  • Motorola Semiconductor (now Freescale) purchase of MetroWerks in 2003
  • Mentor Graphics acquisition of Embedded Alley earlier in 2009 (Mentor helps companies design semiconductors)

Independent embedded Linux companies remaining after Cavium’s move are much smaller players like TimeSys,  services provider Denx and Linux tools supplier Viosoft.

Why MontaVista, Why Now?

Cavium’s stated reasons for the buy are to “complement Cavium’s market leading processor portfolio” and to  “significantly increase Cavium’s software and services revenue”, which in 2009 could amount to a top-line bump of $30M according to Cavium’s investor call.  Unstated are likely concerns about sustaining Cavium’s traditionally close ties with Wind River for design wins with popular Cavium MIPS architecture CPUs for networking and other applications.

MontaVista, for its part, has reportedly been courting suitors for three years or more, after multiple funding rounds that totaled over $100M since the company’s founding in 1999.  The marriage with Cavium reflects the embedded Linux supplier’s long-standing ties to semiconductor suppliers, including  AMCC, Freescale, Intel, Marvell, and Texas Instruments, and processor IP providers ARM and MIPS Technologies.  Many were also strategic investors and sources of substantial historical enablement revenue.  It also probably reflects the state of the firm’s revenues and cash reserves.

Analysis – Acquisition a Bang or a Whimper?

The acquisition is certainly a bang for Cavium.  They get revenue growth, enabling technology, expertise and new ecosystem reach.  But for MontaVista?  They get financial security (for now) and a place in a strong and growing technology supplier.  However, this acquisition surely falls short of the “event” once envisioned by Ready and his many investors.

MontaVista made a strong start in 1999 and 2000, riding the wave of infrastructure build-out to support what later turned into the Internet bubble.  Even after that bubble burst, MontaVista continued to grow, complementing still-strong networking business with consumer electronics, mobile telephony and other intelligent device application segments.  They achieved an impressive series of “firsts” in bringing Linux and open source software (OSS) to the embedded space:

  • First commercial cross tools and fully embedded platform for Power, MIPS and ARM architectures
  • First support for redefinable CPU architectures
  • First to market with a Carrier Grade Linux platform
  • First mass deployments in dozens mobile handset designs and millions of handsets with MobiLinux

and

  • Key enhancements in real-time responsiveness of the Linux kernel
  • Investment in maintaining Linux kernel architecture trees, including especially PowerPC and multiple ARM family CPUs
  • Important advances in and contributions to  open source projects, including the Linux kernel and device drivers, threading libraries, power management, GDBserver and numerous others
  • Early support for embedded multicore architectures and designs
  • Industry leadership in evangelizing embedded Linux and providing assurances about the IP safety of embedded open source

So why did an acquisition occur not at first, but at last?  How was late starter Wind River able to enter the embedded Linux space in earnest after MontaVista’s five year head-start,  and eclispe MontaVista in Linux-based revenues and ultimately in valuation?

For all of the company’s “firsts”, MontaVista took numerous missteps, slowing its growth and causing it to miss multiple windows of opportunity:

Value-added:  for most of its history, MontaVista primarily acted as an integrator of OSS projects, treading water and often swimming below the ever-rising open source value line.  True innovation emerged from the company, but always so low in the stack (mostly in the kernel) that they were unsuccessful in commanding a premium for it.

Revenue Scaling: Because they packaged up and commercialized a broad array of existing projects, and marketed them as development seats to engineers, MontaVista revenue growth was always limited by their ability to capture development teams as customers. They resisted both developing deployment IP or reselling run-time technology from 3rd parties, limiting their opportunity to benefit from successful high-volume OEM customer products.  At one time the company did offer a per-unit licensing option for this aggregated open source content.  Primarily a response to requirements for risk-sharing from key customers, this short-lived selling model baffled many in the industry who assumed that OSS code could only accrue services revenues.

Sustaining vs. Enabling Revenue: MontaVista cultivated strong ties to semiconductor suppliers and other hardware vendors, and was successful for many years in charging a premium for hardware enablement and upstream migration of patches and other code to support CPUs, SoCs and embedded computers.  At various times, the company was more successful in extracting revenues for enabling reference hardware than for supporting OEMs in building product on those systems and silicon.  The result of such strong business development was a product line bloated with board support packages that never saw the light of day in shipping OEM products but added substantial time and costs to new releases and sustaining engineering.  This focus on enablement also served to alienate  partners over time when they could not justify ROI  for their NRE.

Business Model and Execution:  Many MontaVista watchers have argued that the company’s business model was essentially flawed. Certainly there is room for debate about the viability of going to market with a product built almost entirely from freely available OSS components (vs. complementing that platform with proprietary IP, etc.).  Such a model based on building with and for open source can devolve into less attractive high-overhead packaged service business in the face of a rising value line.

By contrast, I would argue that MontaVista insiders and its various detractors were in no position to critique the business model itself since that model (and its minor variations) was never really tested.  The model did not fail the company, but rather the company failed to execute on that model.

Failure to execute belies key assumptions about serving device OEMs with embedded Linux platforms and toolkits:

  • OEMs look to suppliers like MontaVista for productization of the latest Linux kernel technology, libaries, middleware and tools
  • OEMs expect frequent releases and deep expertise at many levels of the platform and tools
  • OEMs anticipate something “in the box” other than bits and bytes they can increasingly source directly from OSS project trees

While MontaVista made a strong start in all these areas, over time they reduced the  investments needed to meet these (not unreasonable) expectations. In the last five years, MontaVista Linux releases became fewer and farther between and did not closely track ongoing Linux kernel and other OSS project evolution.  The company lost most of its hallmark on-staff project maintainers, along with their insight and hands-on knowledge.  And the firm never made sorely needed investments in truly original differentiating technologies and products.

In closing, I remember my first encounter with the company shortly after its founding in the Spring of 1999.  I was doing a trade study of emerging embedded Linux with a colleague and we pondered the future of Jim Ready’s then-new company.  Based on the history of Ready Systems and its flagship VRTX RTOS (acquired by Microtec Research for a modest sum in 1994) we debated whether this new venture would rise to spectacular success or  ultimately stumble.

I guess we were both right.

Android Beyond Mobile. Way Beyond.

I recently published an article entitled “Android Beyond Mobile” in the venerable RTC Magazine, a war horse technical  publication focused on real-time and embedded computing:

Originally a niche platform for mobile handsets, Android is moving into a host of embedded applications building on Linux, Java and the desires of users to frequently bring new applications into existing embedded devices. [Read More]

In the mobile/wireless development circles I frequent, the piece has been well circulated, but I have to admit that  the concept has quickly gained currency, with or without my advocacy.  For example, at the recent ARM techcon3 developers conference, the Android workshops offered by Mentor Graphics for general embedded development were standing-room-only affairs.  I also just helped MIPS Technologies host their MIPS Linux Summit, where the focus was on Linux but much of of the buzz from IP licensees and developers alike came from Android on MIPS architecture designs in networking and multimedia.

This evening, I came across an article by my friend and colleague, Open IT Strategies blogger and professor at SJSU Joel West.  The article  highlights the next wave of Android disruption with a focus on the emerging eReader market, in particular on the Android-based Nook eBook from Barnes and Noble.

First phones, then netbooks, now eBooks, multimedia players, TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs — even industrial control and medical devices are turning to Android as an enabling platform, replete with applications from the Android Market and a growing ecosystem of developers and commercial players. I am almost ready to lay odds that within two years, Android will find its way into more intelligent devices outside of mobile telephony than it will in just mobile handsets.

Readers – am I crazy?  Please, tell me about your plans to deploy Android beyond mobile and how the Google/OHA platform is changing development and deployment of your intelligent device designs.

Google Chrome and Android – Why not AndroChrome?

Last week’s buzz over Google’s announcement of its Chrome desktop (and presumably notetop) OS led me and my readers to ask why the Silicon Valley behemoth needs two mobile OSes.  If device OEMs are working to retool, refactor  and deploy Android for netbooks, why can’t Google do the same?

Google’s rationale for launching Chrome as a separate OS from Android centers on differences in visual form factor and connectivity, as aligned with Google’s commercial goals. Google’s building and backing of Android  was motivated by the company’s desire to promulgate its search-and-advertising revenue model to ubiquitous 3G mobile hardware.

While Google could have continued with distribution of  various mobile apps (Maps, etc.) and mobile browser-based search on competing platforms (especially iPhone), the company appears to want to create a more integrated mobile experience and also be able to gather user data uniquely associated with mobile use cases.  Google also needed a mobile OS that had stand-alone, stateful capabilities, given the still-evolving level of connectivity and available bandwidth on 3G networks, especially in North America. Building Android to run Java (Dalvik is J2SE compatible) also gives OEMs deploying the platform the ability to leverage both existing mobile developer expertise (still very Java-centric) as well enterprise and desktop Java-savvy developers.

The desktop, by contrast, already has a working search-and-advertising model at larger visual form factors, but also enjoys high bandwidth connectivity.  For tethered devices with broadband, it makes more sense to build a web-based OS, in this case with the Chrome browser and a stripped down version of Linux.

Google’s choices reflect a dynamic I have documented in some of my recent blog entries, emphasizing that there is a difference in coming “down from notebooks” and “up from handsets”.  As sales of traditional (too soon to say legacy?) desktop PC and fully-loaded notebooks have flattened and perhaps begin to slide, the trend from PC manufacturers has been to cost-down those devices.  A web-based OS for PCs, notebooks and now netbooks supports that trend, requiring less memory, minimal mass storage, and less potent client CPUs (even as multi-core silicon becomes cheaply available).

On the “up from phones” curve, Android supports smarter smartphones, while still being a mobile phone OS (telephony, power management, footprint, LBS, etc.).

I myself do not see a clear point of convergence, just convergent trends.  The key for success for notebooks and netbooks with diminishing provisioning will be Google’s and others’ ability to leverage the cloud. To date, minimalist netbooks, running versions of Linux, have failed to make the jump from local to cloud computing for two reasons:  because PC OEMs and their channels still upsell on specs, leaving space for Microsoft as users opt to extend/mimic the desktop experience with Windows, Office, etc. and more strategically, because the value proposition of the cloud does not yet translate to the average end user.

With all the fuss over Chrome as a gauntlet thrown down to Microsoft, I think these and other basic questions are going unanswered.  I’d be eager to hear your views.

Intel to Acquire Wind River – Embedded Industry Realignment Coming

I woke up this morning to a train of email from friends and fellow pundits, intrigued and even aghast that Intel had announced its intentions of acquiring embedded industry leader Wind River Systems.  The purchase, while very much newsworthy, is not a huge surprise in an industry where low market caps and niche offerings are the rule.

Embedded Systems (or Device Software, as Wind River calls it), as a segment is defined not by its customers, but by the vendor community. Device OEMs self-identify as developers of networking equipment, consumer devices, automotive systems, medical devices, instrumentation, etc. — not “embedded systems” or “device software”.  This perennial identity crisis is part of the reason for my own saw – the embedded market is all tail and no body.

Plumpest Part of a Long Tail

That being said, Wind River has for several decades occupied the most massive part of the tail (closest to the rump) and enjoyed a clear leadership position.  Its revenues for device software have only been rivaled by Microsoft, but only if you add up designs for Windows Mobile, CE, NT/XP Embedded and secondary use of WindowsXP and other desktop/server variants on blades and embedded motherboards.  Not only have they led the overall segment, but their product line revenues also put them at the forefront of the RTOS market (with VxWorks) and the embedded Linux sub-segment (with Wind River Linux).

Wind Historically Blew off x86

One issue with the acquisition, from the embedded software side, is that historically Wind has never garnered the greatest share of its design wins on Intel silicon.  Far more successful, first for VxWorks and later for the company’s Linux offering, have been architectures like ARM, PowerPC (Power Architecture) and MIPS.  In the last year, the major thrust of the company has been towards mobile handsets, with visible investment in Android and LiMo products and services offerings — all built around ARM CPUs.

Certainly the Intel acquisition reflects the investment that the two companies have made in their partnership to promote Atom over the last year, in particular for automotive designs.  To be fair and accurate, Wind River has also enjoyed a number of key design wins on single-board computers and blades with Intel Architecture CPUs, especially for its Carrier Grade Linux implementation, at companies like Nortel.

Intel – Off and On Again with Embedded Silicon

Intel’s acquisition of Wind River follows multiple forays into the embedded market on the silicon side.  Each time they have enjoyed reasonable success but ultimately never took their eyes off their most lucrative businesses, enterprise servers, desktops and notebooks.  A friend at Intel once despaired that their “embedded chips, revenue-wise, were a wart on the butt of desktop and data center”.

While much hype surrounds the Atom family of processors, it is actually the company’s sixth (and probably best) entrant into the embedded processor market:

  1. Of course, the 8008, 8080 and 8085, all originally embedded silicon
  2. 8031 and 8051 CPUs — long-lived 8-bit microcontrollers, in the “pre-software period” of embedded history (assembly only)
  3. Bigger/better 16/32 bit 80860 and 80960 RISC CPUs, which ended up in a mix of storage, graphics and aerospace applications
  4. Repositioning low-end 386 CPUs for SBCs and custom designs
  5. Intel’s expensive and short-lived licensing of ARM cores as XScale mobile applications (PXA), network (IXP) and storage processors (the XScale brand and technology were sold off to Marvell in 2006)

This evolutionary record alone, however, doesn’t not justify the current investment in all thing Atomic, including buying our friends in Alameda.  What does obviously motivate these investments is the slow death of the PC desktop form factor, already manifested as flat desktop silicon sales, the recession notwithstanding.

Metrowerks II?

A friend of mine pointed out a structural similarity in this acquisition to Freescale (then Motorola Semiconductor) buying compiler and tool vendor MetroWerks way back in 1999 (these historical references are showing my age!).  While the analogy is attractive and superficially accurate, key differences include

  • The market caps with Intel and Wind are greater by 10x or more
  • Neither MetroWerks nor Motorola Semiconductor held the clear leadership positions of Wind River and Intel
  • The emergence of Linux and open source (especially GNU tools) led to the decline of MetroWerks CodeWarrier as much as immersion within Motorola

Industry Impact

This type of cross-segment consolidation in theory results in a powerhouse successor company, but also causes rippling realignments among other players, in this case embedded software and silicon suppliers.  The remaining players, traditionally fragmented and balkanized, are sure to build new ties to replace those with Intel and Wind, and to construct bulwarks against them.

Obvious question arising from the acquisition include

  • To what degree will Intel management constrain Wind River, over time, to focus on Intel architectures?
  • How successful will Atom be in volume applications beyond netbooks?  How will acquiring Wind help with designs for in-car, in-home, in-hand and in-strumentation?
  • Can Wind River retain international mega-customers like NEC and Samsung, whose semiconductor subsidiaries compete head-on with Intel?
  • Will embedded software companies like Embedded Alley, GreenHills, LynuxWorks, MontaVista, QNXTimeSys, et al. even continue to support Intel silicon with RTOS and embedded Linux offerings?  Are they sufficiently agile and creative to take advantage of opportunities created by the acquisition, or will they be swamped by it?
  • Will ARM and MIPS and their licensees, as well as Freescale and AMCC with Power Architecture, win or lose designs?  Can Atom compete with 1B+ annual ARM shipments?
  • What other consolidation will follow on this heels of interesting turn of events?

The recession has put enormous pressure on the players in embedded and mobile ecosystem.  It’s not that large a club and not that well capitalized.  More shoes will shortly drop, heads will roll.  Stay tuned.

The Path to a Linux Netbook Comeback – Look to Google Android

Last week, I made a case for rethinking the role of Linux in mobile computing all together – eschewing the endless game of catchup inherent in the desktop/notebook market (as it applies to increasingly able netbooks), that Linux-based netbooks need to look Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks.

Readers responded, most interestingly to debate whether netbook vendors ever really wanted to ship Linux as a long-term solution, or whether ASUS and others had just “run up the Linux flag” as a way to get Redmond to negotiate better price points.

I was happy to read that Matt Asay saw potential for mobile Linux-based devices as I still do – his Open Road blog entry “Hit Microsoft where it ain’t” is definitely worth reading, as is Dana Blankenhorn’s ZDnet blog on “Linux and the Channel“.  Sam Dean narrows the discussion from the whole channel down to the essential issue of product differentiation in his thoughtful blog entry “Linux Netbooks – What’s the secret sauce for sales?

But is it really too late for Linux on Netbooks?

Is this potentially vibrant new marketplace doomed to share the fate of desktop Linux? Real hope lies in learning from the desktop debacle and re-inventing the open source OSS as a first-class service delivery vehicle.  In that vein, I have listed some suggestions for netbook manufacturers, purveyors of Linux and the developer community:

Focus on integrating into operator programs

Even if you think that operators face disintermediation and dumb-pipe obsolescence, they still “own” the networks and are the drivers of current and next-generation rollout. They also represent a channel focused on service delivery as opposed to desktop hardware and accompanying expectations for margins etc.

Build on handset design concepts, not desktop expectations

If consumers wanted a Linux desktop experience, they’d have long since bought into actual desktops running Ubuntu and other consumer friendly distros. By contrast, Linux actually provides the foundation for a swath of very successful handsets, from the Motorola Ming, which handily captured a full percent of the Chinese mobile market – that’s 30-40 million units for a single handset model – to NEC Panasonic handsets in Japan to current generation Motorola ROKRs and RAZRs and the exploding market of Android-based devices.

Consumers buy and use these devices not because they run free software in general or Linux in particular, but because they deliver operator services in stylish and functional packages.

Focus on user experience, not just BoM

Even if operators are intent on squeezing costs to preserve services margins, Linux-based mobile devices must still provide compelling user experiences. Put aside the KDE vs. GNOME debate and focus on helping both operators and ISVs deliver applications – in this space the competition isn’t Windows, it’s the iPhone apps store, it’s Blackberry enterprise integration and outside the US, it’s the SymbianOS ecosystem.

Rather than focus on the “mobile desktop”, provide applications resources for rich graphics, multimedia, gesture-based MMI, skinning, and personalization in a netbook-sized package.

Look to Android as netbook platform

Many Linux purists dismiss Android as the insidious invention of the Google Borg and as a shiny tomb for the Linux kernel buried inside it. However, it may be the only viable vector for bringing Linux and open source to programmable mass-market devices. Android is cropping up everywhere – originally targeted to appeal to Tier II and III Asian handset OEMs and ODMs, it now constitutes the core of platform strategies at Tier I mobile suppliers like Samsung, Motorola, and LG. More importantly, Android caters to operator requirements for a services-centric customizable user experience.

Whether or not you like Android for its own sake, it creates opportunities for partnership among Google, operators, ISVs/OSVs, and other third parties. As a platform and a phenomenon it is building bridges across market chasms once considered unspannable. Just consider HTC, once a bastion of Windows Mobile handsets. The Taiwanese OEM is today the first and leading provider on phones based on Android.

Google, OHA members and others have also telegraphed their plans to deploy Android as a netbook OS. Early rumblings have emerged from Freescale for a $199 netbook based on their i.MX CPU, and other mobile-savvy semiconductor suppliers like TI and Marvell are likely to follow suit with their ARM-based offerings. Artesian efforts have also surfaced, demonstrating Android ported to currently available netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC.

Android Beyond Mobile

Android for operator-subsidized netbooks will also gain momentum and credibility from related deployment and crossover onto other content delivery devices, like digital TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs, satellite receivers and automotive in-vehicle infotainment systems.  Earlier this week Embedded Alley announced delivery of a development system targeting MIPS-based devices.  MIPS Technologies and their architecture licensee RMI also announced plans for Android support.

As always, I appreciate reader comments and feedback.  I am especially interested what readers think of the current state of Android and its chances for success in mobile devices and beyond.

In the next and final segment of this topic, I will talk about trends in the underlying mobile processors, and then zoom right up to the synergies among netbooks, Linux and the Cloud.

Netbooks: Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks

Last week I began a discussion of whether Linux will survive as an OS for netbooks.  I received a number of comments, some highlighting which netbook OEMs favored which Linux distros, other despairing at the paucity of verifiable market numbers (a distress that I share).  One reader pointedly chastised me not to

“overlook the fact that, after being caught off guard by netbooks, MS bent over backwards to get XP-based netbooks on the shelves. Then, they forced the Linux netbooks off the shelves with exclusivity agreements and strong-arm tactics. It’s rather difficult to sell Linux-based netbooks when the retail outlets have been bullied by MS to only stock XP-based netbooks.”

I am actually keenly aware of Redmond’s “negotiating skills”.  In the mid-1990s, while I was at Acer Latin America,  our entire group was audited by Microsoft.  It seemed that our mix of DOS, Windows and Windows for Workgroups was too skewed towards the command line for Redmond’s bottom line.   Our channels licensed a lot of DOS, principally to enable installation of Netware, UNIX and yes, also Linux, especially in Brazil where I was based.  The audit lasted three months and actually shut down several of Acer’s smaller regional subsidiaries. We “got the point” but didn’t change our OS mix until Window95 appeared a year later.

Mobile Phone (Volume) Lust
I think that one strategic error made by purveyors of Linux netbooks was to covet the volumes of the global mobile telephony market while following the business models and channels of the legacy notebook marketplace.  Linux fans – .orgs, Linux ISVs and device OEMS – unfortunately approached the netbook opportunity as a downward extension of the desktop and portable PC business, with volumes of 297M units in 2008 (IDC).

Instead, the Linux ecosystem needs to envision netbooks (and MIDs and tablets) as building on the worldwide mobile handset business, with its 1.28B annual unit shipments (Gartner) the most lucrative slice of which, smart phones, constitutes 14% (ABI) with 20% annual growth rates.
The structure and dynamics of the mobile handset market depart from the PC business on several parameters:

  • End users (a majority in the US) acquire their devices from service providers, not from the retail channels favored by PCs and notebooks
  • Mobile operators and carriers view handsets first as service delivery vehicles and second as applications platforms
  • Operators subsidize handset acquisition costs, making up their margins over multi-year service contracts

This time-worn model is beginning to break down, however, challenged by flat and falling voice revenues, encroaching VoIP services from “virtual” network operators, and surging EDGE and 3G data traffic that threatens to overwhelm existing network capacity.
As a means to preserve flagging ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User), mobile operators and regional carriers are accelerating next-generation (4G) rollout, emphasizing data, not voice, on WiMax and soon on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) in select markets, as well as experimenting with pure data business models over existing WiFi access points.  Most interestingly, after lackluster efforts of marketing WiMax and WiFi network interface cards to existing notebook owners, operators like ATT, T-Mobile and Verizon are instead following their historical playbook and bundling Linux-based netbooks with data services subscriptions through their own channels.
This bundling, unlike CE/Retail channels, actually has the ability to leverage the presumed virtues of Linux-based netbooks:

  • Lightweight BoM further subsidized by data plan subscriptions
  • Greater opportunity for operators to preserve and build on brand equity and differentiate through custom applications and services (as with mobile phones)
  • Built-in network access and ability to leverage the Cloud

Such programs have the further charm of driving 3G+/4G revenue in the short and mid-term preserving ARPUs with data (rather than voice) and for building subscriber loyalty.

But will operators build out the mainsream versions of these programs using Linux-based devices?  Can developers and purveyors of Linux sieze this opportunity and stay in the netbook game?  Let me know what you think as we continue this discussion next week.

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