What mobile Linux is missing

What mobile Linux is missing

Summary: What should a really great mobile Linux device look like, and how should it work? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Bete Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)Design.

While lots of people (including Paula) were ga-ga over the promise of mobile Linux as exhibited at Intel's Developer Forum in Shanghai, I couldn't help noticing that the devices shown were uglier than Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (It's her centennial today.)

This is a serious problem, not just for Linux but for anyone hoping to compete with Apple in the device market.

Design -- which includes the user interface -- is a tough nut to crack. It's not easily done by a committee. It demands breakthroughs, unique genius, and thus (some might say) a proprietary attitude.

It's interesting, then, that Intel chose to make this announcement (and that of its Atom chip) in Shanghai.

China is as big in assembly as Intel is in chip production. Both are anxious to go up-market, into name brand products, where the money is. Neither has yet been able to do so.

They're both stars in their own right, Intel and China, but they've always wanted to direct. (So did Davis, by the way.)

The hope is that, with hundreds of thousands of Chinese developers working hard on the problem with Intel hardware, a solution will come. This is like expecting those millions of monkeys to write Shakespeare. They might, but you won't be able to find it in all the dreck.

This is not a knock against Linux or China. Microsoft is on the same quest. So are Nokia and the other cellphone makers. Problem is they're starting to look like a touring company of Spamalot. Only without Eric Idle writing it.

So let's give them some help. What should a really great mobile Linux device look like, and how should it work? Inquiring minds want to know, in Shanghai, in Santa Clara, even here in Atlanta. If you come up with something good, China will make it, Intel will supply the chips, and we'll market the you-know-what out of it.

Topics: China, Intel, Linux, Mobility, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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19 comments
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  • I've always thought Linux could do well here

    There are no driver requirements to satisfy and so it should be easy to develop a device that works well and is cheaper due to the lack of software licensing costs.

    So far it hasn't been the case..meanwhile a propritary company (Apple) has been really innovative and profitable in this space.
    otaddy
    • Nothing to disagree with the post.

      The reason Apple is the "innovator" is because they do their homework and aren't afraid to invest on new ideas.

      On the other hand, many in the industry wants to use Linux to save money, but don't invest a single dime on making the product marketable. They just want to keep the money without investing some back.

      Jobs knows that you can't make money without investing and making a product "sexy" enough for the market. He knows that in the end, a good investment will payoff and turn into better profits.

      That is something most CEOs and decision makers have forgotten.
      wackoae
      • Implicit in your argument

        If Apple can't sell it with a large enough margin, it won't come
        out.

        People asked about the correlation of ugly to Linux and these are
        coincident because these devices are in a market where cost is
        king and any thing that lowers price gets one closer to success.
        So no licensed embedded os and minimal industrial design.
        DannyO_0x98
        • Cost is not king in the device market

          I hate to disagree with you, but while cost is king in terms of the assembly of products, it's not the primary factor determining market share.
          DanaBlankenhorn
          • True, but then what is advantage of using Linux?

            But then what advantage does Linux have? Maybe Apple/MS is the way to go then?

            I was hoping to see a linux type iPhone that was cheaper than Apple's product. I think this would sell and while I agree price doesnt determine everything, it can make a big difference.
            otaddy
          • It is true that cost is not king, but, companies DO want to make more money

            where they can. If they do not get any advantage PAYING for an OS, there is not reason to pay. With Linux, you get a lot more flexibility, and you can just make any changes you want, not begging and pleading.

            So, you get a design team like they have at Apple, developing a Linux phone, and you will really have something. Now, try to find that team.
            DonnieBoy
  • What does Linux has to do with physical design??

    This article is a joke. The author does nothing but complain about the physica look of a device and some how blames that on Linux.

    Tell me o not so smart "writer", how is an OS to blame for the PHYSICAL design of hardware?? How is the OS to blame for the shape of a box that includes it??

    It is like blaming Windows for how ugly the case of a cheap no-brand PC looks.
    wackoae
    • The OS and physical design

      We need physically well-designed devices in order to make headway in this market. It's a challenge both to Linux and the open source process under which Linux operates.

      Can this process deliver cutting-edge design? That's the challenge.
      DanaBlankenhorn
      • The Holistic Approach and Owning the Problem

        I think I understand where you're coming from, but I'd put
        it a different way. Yes, the physical design needs to be
        more refined, but it shouldn't be done separately from the
        rest of the design process. To the user operating a device,
        the blend between the software (including but not limited
        to the UI) and the hardware must be seamless.

        Apple has done this by individuals within the company
        taking ownership of the design problems. The most
        obvious person to take ownership is the notoriously
        micro-managing Steve Jobs, but there is no way he could
        do this alone. To build something like the iPhone takes
        hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and many of those
        people are leading by taking ownership of their slice of
        work.

        I'm not sure why this wouldn't be possible with Linux
        based devices. Perhaps companies are worried that if they
        take "ownership" of their own Linux variant, they won't
        actually own the work, and competitors will profit off their
        work and investment. This is shortsighted, because, again,
        it's only looking at one part of the whole. They can benefit
        from Open Source Software if it's part of a top notch
        design process.

        Anyway, I'm looking forward to what happens with
        Android, although I'll probably buy an iPhone sometime
        this year.
        Marcos El Malo
      • You... are not answering the question

        I wonder what devices running Linux based OSes you've seen. Is it the OLPC (called by several, the new paradigm of laptop development?), or the EeePC (which sells faster than it is made, because users find it cute, and easy to use), or the OpenMoko prototype (which I personally find nice), or what?

        Considering the sleek looking KDE4, with its mobile port eased by how light Qt4 has gotten, or Linux's small footprint and modularity, allowing anybody to program a GUI for it, or X's flexibility, which barely a week after Microsoft unveiled their first Surface prototype, was already able to deal with several input devices on standard applications (and finger painting on a touch screen in real time is impressive indeed)? Or maybe, the ever more used Tango icon set and guidelines, providing unified interfaces across more and more apps, eventhough all of them are developed by different teams?

        Frankly, it's not Linux and the community which face a challenge - it's Microsoft (their design guidelines are a joke) and Apple (whose design guidelines are much, much better, but the developers still lack flexibility and are not as forthcoming as Microsoft's to present present and future APIs for client-side application development).
        Mitch 74
    • And, I don't think he was blaming the ugly products on Linux, but, we DO

      need an innovator to create a beautiful product with Linux. That includes the UI, applications, AND the physical design.
      DonnieBoy
      • Right on Donnie boy..it has to look good too!

        Slickness sells in mobile devices and I was hoping that with Linux, I could get slickness AND low cost.
        otaddy
    • Linux is not the blame

      but on the other hand you can have the best written Linux OS running on a cell phone that looks like a cross between an AM radio and roadkill, and no one will bother with the phone, therby passing up a geatr Linux based phone OS.

      Linux must try to get it's way onto some phones that people actually want to be seen in public with.
      GuidingLight
  • They Are?

    Funny you should mention Nokia as being one of the folks hunting for a better design. Maybe beauty is in the eye of the beholder here, but I happen to think the N8x0 lines look pretty darned good, darned better than most iPaq's nowadays (having used them almost exclusively until I switched to an N800 running Maemo's OS2008). About the only thing I'd love to see on it is something like an OpenOffice Mobile Edition (a la Microsoft's "Pocket" version of its Office apps), but that can be worked around for now with things like Gnumeric. Other than that, near as I can tell, Nokia has Linux making pretty good headway in the mobile space.
    Whyaylooh
    • I have a Nokia 770, and it was very innovative for it's time. I would like

      to see a new N8xx with phone, wimax, and wifi. With more memory and faster processor, we might have a hit.
      DonnieBoy
      • Donnie

        While it's not yet a phone, Nokia just released a new N810 with WiMax. Install skype and you're getting closer.
        Tim Patterson
  • RE: What mobile Linux is missing

    There is a pretty damn good Linux mobile device around - the Motorola Rokr E6. What we need is an evolution of this device - bigger screen, camera light, 3G... of course, this is so cheap and obvious that no one would dare to do it...
    bigal3
  • Mobile Linux isn't missing anything

    The device designers are. Industrial design is an art, not a science, and is heavily influenced by culture. A good example is wedding dresses, in Western culture the are white for purity, where white is the color of mourning in Oriental culture. Another example being cell phones, most Japanese ones look overly complex to North Americans, and don't sell well here. So while you thought the devices were ugly, they may sell well in China.

    Guess we'll see.
    The Mad Hatter
  • RE: What mobile Linux is missing

    I liken the current broad view of Linux Laptops to the ocean pulling away just before the big tidal arrival. For example, google Rich Creek and Seneca Data and you see that the best thing VARS could have (non-proprietary white-box parts for notebooks - a build and field replacement advantage), has arrived.
    At a hibachi grille, last night, I struck up a conversation with some jr managers of a well known restaurant chain, and I was taken back by their lack of enthusiasm for Apple laptops, again, reinforcing my belief that white-box laptops are going to ignite a fire-storm of creativity at the end-user and VAR level and take it away from the unimaginative tier one companies.
    louiszamora