One of the more interesting things about Linux is that it supports a wide range of different processor architectures – a dozen are officially supported in the latest stable Debian release, for example. This doesn’t affect most people – the closest your average PC users comes to knowing anything about architectures is if there’s an “Intel Inside” sticker on their machine – but it does provide interesting possibilities for hardware developers who want to build something that’s not based on Intel’s i386 legacy.
One of the most common alternatives in the mobile market is the ARM architecture. Now you may not have heard of ARM chips before, but you’ve probably heard of things like the iPod, Nintendo DS and BlackBerry, which have all been driven by ARM processors at one time or another. Generally ARM chips are a popular choice for mobile devices because they are particularly efficient, providing a large amount of processing power relative to the amount of electrical power they draw.
One thing that you can’t do with an ARM processor, however, is run Windows on it. It’s true that there are Windows-branded operating systems that will run on ARM – WindowsCE and Windows Mobile, for example – but despite their Windows branding these are not Windows in the normal XP-and-Vista sense. So if you want the high performance of an ARM chip, it’s no Windows for you. But you can have Linux.
This is one of the side-effects of the Open Source movement: because the source is available, it can be ported to other architectures (sometimes with very little effort). That means not only the Linux kernel itself, but the majority of applications that go with it. Browsers, email clients, games and even whole office suites are just a port away.
It’s no surprise, then, that a number of manufacturers are looking at ARM chips to put into netbooks and other similar devices. They can create a cheaper product (or a more feature-rich product for the same price), but still deliver a complete collection of desktop applications. Okay, so it won’t run Windows applications, but it will still allow you to browse the web and create Microsoft Office compatible files, at a low cost. So it came as no surprise to me when Qualcomm recently showed off a version of the Asus EeePC with an ARM processor at its core, running Google’s Android operating system (itself based on Linux), and another running the Xandros Linux distribution.
What followed, however, was some ridiculous backtracking from Asus themselves, as their chairman decided he needed to apologise for Qualcomm’s revelation. Not having been there, I can’t say for certain if this was a “sorry, you shouldn’t have seen that because it’s not being released yet/ever” type of apology, but at least one commentator seems to think it was a “sorry Microsoft, please don’t push our licence fees up” type of apology! Unfortunately, given Microsoft’s history of underhand and all-out illegal actions against its resellers, I can all too easily believe it’s the latter.
Even if Asus get cold feet and their ARM-and-Linux powered EeePC never sees the light of day, you can bet that there are plenty of other manufacturers who are gearing up to produce similar devices. I really hope they sell well: the main problem is likely to be the general public buying them without fully understanding the implications of buying a non-Windows and non-i386 machine.
The iPhone proves that it’s possible to manage people’s expectations if you don’t try to fool them into thinking they’re getting something that’s just like their Windows PC. Nobody complains that the iPhone won’t run Excel or Halo, yet those are just the sort of complaints that are levelled at Linux netbooks – and are likely to be levelled against ARM-powered netbooks if the UI leads people to think they’re buying something Windows-like. Hopefully the more radical UI elements of Moblin and Android will help to dispel this confusion.
Personally I’m already in the queue for my ARM-and-Linux powered portable device this year in the form of the Pandora.