In the 1980s, a running joke among PC specialists was: "This year will be the tenth consecutive Year of the Network". Indeed, PC LANs took a decade to become established, despite strong pressure from manufacturers selling the obvious advantages. In the end, a combination of a reliable, easy-to-install format — 10 Base-T — and sufficiently capable, cheap PCs proved the magic mixture of market and method.
Another magic mixture is finally coming to the boil. This time, it's Linux's turn to find the right market at the right time. Open-source advocates have long promised Linux on the desktop, but to date it's remained a minority interest. Those advocates were nearly right — only they shouldn't have been looking at the desk. Laps and pockets are the operating system's most fertile evolutionary niches.
Take Dell's announcement of pre-installed Ubuntu. That's being sold as a natural reaction to market demand: there's some truth in that. But Dell feels able to respond because it is comfortable that support is manageable and its brand won't be harmed by bad experiences. Some of that is due to Ubuntu's user-centric support structure and the obvious maturity of the product: a more important factor is the rise of the laptop. Laptops are far less tweakable than desktops; you can't change the hardware configuration very much, so Dell has confidence that the audio and video drivers it has certified for its portable hardware will remain good for the lifetime of the machinery.
And the smaller you go, the better Linux looks. Intel has said it is working with Ubuntu and Red Flag Linux developers to make sure everything's ready for the next generation of ultra-mobile PCs, where the open-source software's much smaller footprint, greater flexibility, rich mix of applications, solid security and high speed of development makes it a very attractive alternative to either Vista or Windows Mobile. It doesn't hurt that the primary usage mode for laptop and portable devices these days is as roaming internet-access devices, an area which has proved resolutely platform independent. Microsoft is very exposed in that area: it forces hard decisions on developers and charges for the privilege. It is difficult to envisage Vista running on a phone or Mobile on a laptop, yet it is in precisely the area between the two that we expect most innovation over the next couple of years.
The game's not over yet, but new rules are in place. Linux is ready, the hardware is ready — and, if the market is ready, the results will be spectacular. Drivers, start your laptops.