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Good News, Bad News for Open Source Atom and ARM Support

Christopher Tozzi

September 18, 2012

3 Min Read
Good News, Bad News for Open Source Atom and ARM Support

It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times — when it comes to open source hardware support, that is. This month has seen a few major announcements about open source compatibility with emerging hardware devices, some of which have been encouraging for the Free Software crowd, and others not so much. Read on for a summary.

First off, Intel (NASDAQ: INTL) announced last week that its new “Clover Trail” chip will not support Linux. The hardware, one of the latest in Intel’s popular Atom line of low-energy, cost efficient CPUs, will run on Windows only. That’s good news for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), especially as it prepares for the forthcoming Windows 8 release.

But for the open source channel, the decision is a little worrying, and not only because of its immediate implications for Clover Trail hardware. Intel traditionally has had a very solid track record of Linux support for its devices, from microprocessors to video cards to wireless chips. If the company’s decision in this case to cater to Microsoft is a sign of things to come, the future could be a little bleaker for open source users.

On the other hand, Intel also delivered some positive news to the Linux community this month when it announced that its “Medfield” line of Atom chips had gained support for version 4.1 of Google (NASDAQ: GOOG)’s open source Android operating system. That development will help ensure the continued presence of open source code on smartphones built on the Medfield line of chips.

Nonetheless, the Medfield news may offer only limited consolation to open source organizations discouraged by the lack of Linux support for Clover Trail. Android represents only a slice of the larger Linux world, and Medfield chips are deployed on a relatively narrow range of devices. Clover Trail processors, meanwhile, are likely to enjoy broader application — so the exclusion of Linux from the hardware they power will probably prove to be a bigger loss than a lack of Android 4.1 support for Medfield would have been.

All hope is not lost for open source, however. Beyond the Intel world, an interesting Android-based desktop PC, the CloudBB, has made its appearance in China. Manufactured by Motorola (NYSE: MSI), the computer ships with an ARM processor, one Gigabyte of RAM and four Gigabytes of flash memory.

In other words, it may not be that different at all from the phone in your pocket, other than its size. The extent to which demand for these kinds of devices exists is debatable. Even if they take off in emerging markets, I wouldn’t bet much money on consumers in developed regions showing significant interest in a PC with such minimal hardware specifications.

Still,there’s a possibility that ARM-based desktops such as the CloudBB could become popular. If they do, they’ll create new opportunities in the open source channel, and introduce Android to a hardware market where it has not yet ventured in any major way. And so whichever path Intel may opt to follow in the future with regard to Linux, some blue skies will remain for the future of open source and emerging hardware.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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