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Linux's Impact: The Return of XP
Apr. 02, 2008

Opinion -- It's a good news, bad news situation.

The good news is that Linux has been remarkably successful at the low end of PCs, the new UMPC (Ultramobile PCs) like Asus' Eee line and Everex's CloudBook. Better still, Intel's new Atom processors were made specifically to power UMPCs and Intel's cross between a smart phone and a UMPC, the MID (Mobile Internet Device).

Atom, the former "Silverthorne," is not only Intel's smallest chip to date, it also eats up only 2.4 watts compared with today's average laptop, which gobbles up 35 watts. Intel also claims that the first generation of Atom can run as fast as 1.86GHz. Combine this with Intel's new System Controller Hub and you have a chip set that can display three-dimensional graphics or show 720p and 1080i high-definition video as well as support multiple USB 2.0 ports, Wi-Fi and WiMax. If you buy Intel's hype, it's the greatest thing since sliced bread.

OK, so even if it's not that great, it's going to be pretty darn good and it's going to run Linux. I know that some vendors, including Aigo, Asus, BenQ, Clarion, Compal, Elektrobit, Lenovo, LG, Panasonic and Toshiba, will be delivering Atom-powered UMPCs and MIDs using Ubuntu and Red Flag Linux.

As Patrick G. Ward, an Intel public relations manager, explained, "Linux is well-suited to meet the requirements for MIDs from a footprint, power management, flexibility, performance and cost perspective. Some of our customers value these Linux characteristics and are demanding [that we] support this OS for MIDs. We are working with a few ISVs and software vendors to optimize the Linux core and applications to meet the unique needs of the MID category."

This isn't idle chat. Intel is already the fourth leading contributor to the Linux kernel. Intel is also deeply involved in several Linux Foundation technical initiatives.

After all, it only makes sense. "In the long run," Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, told me in a recent conversation, "as hardware prices continue to come down and the cost of the operating system makes up more of the cost, Linux simply offers hardware vendors better margins. Thanks to that alone, Linux must continue to gain market share."

Microsoft, however, seems to have been waking up to the fact that it's stuck between Linux on the low end and Mac OS on the high end. It seems all but certain that Microsoft is going to keep Windows XP alive longer than it had planned.

That's the bad news. Microsoft had first planned to start taking XP out of circulation on June 30. Compared with Vista, or ME II as some of us have taken to calling it, Linux has been making serious inroads. XP, however, remains popular. XP Service Pack 3, whenever it comes out, is Microsoft's best Windows ever.

XP, not Vista, is much more of a challenge for desktop Linux. Microsoft may not want to publicly admit that it's giving up on Vista -- which will never fit effectively on a UMPC or MID -- but if it does keep XP on the market, that's exactly what it'll be doing.

This is a case, though, where even though Windows will be suffering a major market defeat, it won't automatically be good news for Linux. The desktop battle will continue for years to come.

Additional reporting by Lisa Vaas.

-- Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

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