The year of Linux on the desktop?

KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0...
KDE 4 Current version: 4.7 Older versions: 4.0 beta 2, 4.0 beta 3, 4.0 beta 4, 4.0 RC2, 4.0 final, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6 (see file history) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many who work or research in the industry, desktop computers have an “end of history” feel about them.

The improvements in technology that allow chip makers to double the number of transistors in a given area of silicon every 18 – 24 months are still there but “Moore’s Law” as we understand it – ie., that computers will get twice as fast every 18 – 24 months – has broken down. We simply cannot power the chips (or rather keep them cool while supplying them with the power they need) and while parallelisation (ie “manycore”) means manufacturers can lower power demands and, to some extent, keep the speed of machines rising, it too is hitting a fundamental barrier – the inability of commodity hardware to supply instructions and data from memory fast enough to serve many more than 4 – 8 cores.

All this suggests that we might be close to “peak desktop” or to put it another way, the desktop computer you have now is not much slower than the one you will have in ten years time (unless, that is, you shell out quite a lot more for some fancy memory architecture or some other technological advance changes the rules.)

But what I think is clear is that you will have a desktop computer in a decade’s time, though it may look a bit more like today’s laptops: smaller, lighter, devices are going to be easier to deliver than faster ones. Tablets and other small form factor devices are useful for browsing the internet or writing a 140 character message, but who they are not the ideal devices for writing a 5, 10 or 100 page document on.

But if we are only going to buy one or at most two new desktop devices in the next decade then the business model of Microsoft – which still utterly dominates this space – is broken. No new desktops means no new sales of Office, the big money spinner for Microsoft.  Their response has been to compete for tablet and phone sales with Apple, though they start from a long way behind and, now, to lever their near-monopoly on general-use operating systems to seize control of all of the software on desktop.

Their plan to demand complete control over the desktop may yet fall foul of the regulators – it is difficult to see the European Commission nodding this one through, for instance. But there are other responses available.

Microsoft got clobbered in two ways when they previously tried to lock up one aspect of the software ecosystem – the browser. For sure, regulators put the squeeze on, but long before then users developed a far more effective way of breaking free – they switched to Mozilla Firefox.

Now the battle is much bigger. Microsoft are not just trying to control your browser, but all the other software on your machine. They will say they will still let others manufacture software and they are just supplying quality control – but would you really agree to the only books being available for sale those that were approved by Amazon (sadly, the evidence from the ebook market suggests that many of you would!)?

And what if Windows 9 removes all support for non-approved software (no doubt in the name of virus suppression or trojan elimination?) The behaviour of Apple fanatics shows there are plenty willing to welcome their new all-controlling overlords. But there is an alternative – whisper it – Linux on the desktop.

Now that very phrase – “Linux on the desktop” – has an internet meme-like jokey feel to it. It’s the gallows humour phrase of the free software world. If Linus Torvalds were ever to be led to the scaffold for crimes against intellectual property robber barons his last words would no doubt be “this is the year of Linux on the desktop” – but maybe the moment has come to find a generation of “second adopters” who are willing to break out of Microsoft’s jail?

The pace of development of the Linux kernel has not slowed, but there is a less excited feel to it all these days: Thermidor came to this revolution some time ago, but that is also a sign of its maturity.

After all, there is still no stopping an idea whose time has come.

No (well, not much) kernel hacking on a Sunday

These days it is possible to host the Linux kernel on GitHub and their tools reveal some interesting things about the pattern of kernel hacking (or at least of kernel committing.)

The “punchcard” tool shows what times commits are made. And here it is for the Linux kernel:

GitHub punchcard for the Linux kernelIt seems that kernel hacking is pretty much a 9 – 5 week-a-day task, though with a bit of extra stuff in the evenings – pretty much what one would expect from a team of office workers.

With more and more additions to the kernel coming straight off git pulls, this pattern must reflect rather more than Linus Torvalds‘ own office habits.

It looks like the image of kernel hackers as nerds pulling all-nighters with the help of “rotary debuggers” (see Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution for more of that) is well past its use-by date: building Linux is just a job.

Richard Stallman plainly lacks any sense of irony

Richard Stallman conference on free software t...
Image via Wikipedia

Richard Stallman (aka “RMS” or the “last of the true hackers” according to Steven Levy’s classic book) is a great, but very difficult, man.

His strops and sulks about Linus Torvalds should not blind us to the fact that he does have a serious and valid point when he insists that what most people call “Linux” should really be called “GNU/Linux”.

But he would also seem to be a man without much of a sense of irony because he has used the propaganda channel funded and founded by the Kremlin, Russia Today (RT), to launch an attack on Facebook as an enemy of Freedom.

RT has marketed itself, in Britain at least, as the channel of choice for conspiracy nuts, the enemies of science and “truthers”. Hardly a surprise when its paymasters in the Kremlin are desperate to hold off any advances towards democracy in Russia and remain the last line of defence of the Syrian and Iranian dictatorships in the international arena.

Shame on you Richard Stallman.

(The interview with RT was conducted over a month ago but as you can guess I am not a regular viewer and it just turned up in the “CodeProject” email this morning.)

What’s that coming over the hill?

An image of Richard Matthew Stallman taken fro...
Image via Wikipedia

Seems, at long last, it may be the GNU HURD, the operating system kernel that Richard Stallman planned some three decades ago as the killer of the proprietary Unices and hacked away at for another ten years before some Finnish computer science student – Linus Torvalds – wrote a task switcher “just for fun” and Linux‘s road to world domination began.

The HURD (Herd of Unix Replacing Daemons) is all the things that operating system classes tell you is good: a microkernel and independent services for most of things users interact with – the idea being that the system will survive if even one of these daemons/services crashes. With only a small proportion of the kernel in kernel space the service daemons communicate via messages and all operate in individual memory protected spaces.

The problem – at least, so I understand, is that it is extremely slow and, in any case, Linux fulfils the political aspect of the GNU manifesto, so why switch to an experimental operating system kernel?


At least there won’t be the same design decision taken with Windows NT – which is also based on a microkernel design – to lock all the services into a single memory space for speed reasons: seems to defeat the purpose of having such a design (though obviously does not make it inherently inferior to a monolithic design like Linux.)

Of course, increased speed and memory means the history of general computing is the history of swapping speed for convenience and flexibility – that is what an operating system is for, after all: if you wanted a faster word processor you could write one that didn’t rely on all that operating system fluff: but try selling that idea to anyone!

Moore’s Law is generally expected to run for at least another ten years, meaning by 2011 computers will be 32 times faster than today and are also likely to be substantially more parallel – something which ought to inherently suit the HURD’s design. More than that we may have may even bigger advances in parallel algorithms.

So, while I won’t be switching to the HURD just yet, I’m not ruling out doing that either.

Wow, two posts in two days on the bad boys of the free software movement – Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond.

I guess I am supposed to like Stallman more – and certainly Raymond’s libertarianism is a big turnoff, but Stallman is a fundamentalist and I having been fighting political fundamentalists for as long as Stallman has been GNUing.

Linux 3.0

Red Hat Linux 7.0
Image by Pitel via Flickr

Ten years ago next week I booted my first Linux machine – Labour had just won its second landslide and I had a few days off work after the election and so went out and bought a PC from the late lamented Morgan Computers and – dear reader, pity my naivety – paid about £50 or so for a boxed copy of Red Hat Linux 7.0 (still cheaper than the alternative).

I didn’t really know anything about Linux beyond a few basic shell commands and it was a steep learning curve. But I have never looked back.

Today I have just updated my git repository as I work on setting up my project and have been shocked to see that Linus Torvalds has baptised the latest version of the kernel 3.0-rc1 – my version of Red Hat was the first they had released as a 2.4 series kernel.

Onwards and upwards.