Linux comes in 188 delicious flavours

Open source computing could be coming to a handheld near you

Divergence is healthy. That is the message from LinuxWorld Expo in New York, where Elizabeth Coolbaugh, executive editor for LWN.net (Linux Weekly News), predicts this diversity will produce an explosion of Linux in embedded devices such as handheld computers.

There are currently 188 different versions of Linux. Once it was feared this ever-growing number of distributions might threaten the success of the upstart operating system in the same way that it affected the success of commercial versions of Unix.

However, this diversity is now being identified as one of its most attractive characteristics. Coolbaugh says the escalating number of Linux distributions is symptomatic of the adaptability the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) gives the operating system. Under this licence, new versions can be created, changed and reused cheaply and developers can borrow each other's source code.

She says this has led to Linux finding its way into all manner of commercial and technology niches and believes that a massive area of Linux growth will be embedded computing -- where the operating system is built into device hardware. "This is going to skyrocket," she says. "It's a very, very hot field for Linux. Something that is very exciting is Linux on the handheld."

The number of versions of Linux designed for embedded computing has jumped from just three to 25 in the past year, she notes. "They all need a bit of work, but give them a year."

Coolbaugh says Linux offers embedded hardware companies a cheap solution and frees developers from a reliance on proprietary software, which may restrict their work and even become obsolete. Popular versions of Linux for embedded computing include Embedix from Lineo, Hard Hat Linux, Compact and Blue Cat Linux.

Francios Isabelle, a systems testing specialist with Teknor, a Canadian embedded computing company using Linux agrees with this assessment. "Personally, I think [divergence] is a good thing. It gives a chance for competition and improvement."

As examples of the adaptability of Linux, Coolbaugh also points to niche editions of the operating system designed for non-X86 hardware, to power appliances such as routers, for example the Linux Router Project (RLP), and even suggest that the biggest future threat to Cisco in the router market will come from low-cost Linux routers.

There remain, however, dozens of mainstream Linux distributions, each of which has been tailored to slightly different user needs or tastes. In the past this has led to concerns that Linux could fragment and its strength could be diluted. However, Coolbaugh believes that, because Linux is developed open source this divergence will not necessarily lead to division. She believes there continues to be sufficient interoperability between different distributions.

"The concern was, is it going to get harder to move between distributions? That's not the trend I'm seeing. In fact, it's the other way around," she says.

Jeff Bates, better known as Hemos, an editor of the popular Linux news service Slashdot.org, agrees that variety will not hamper the success of Linux. "People want different things," he says. "It doesn't matter because we're all using the same package managers."

Bates says that this diversity even affords Linux a charm that is missing with many other operating systems. "It comes down to personality. People identify with different things and that's great."

Nevertheless, Coolbaugh warns that fragmentation within Linux could occur if common standards between distributions are not maintained and developers rely too strongly on proprietary software. "We need to be concerned and keep the pressure on distributions," she says.

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