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Will Linux's Hardware Requirements Stifle Its Acceptance?

Christopher Tozzi

December 12, 2011

3 Min Read
Will Linux's Hardware Requirements Stifle Its Acceptance?

Linux’s ability to run on old or budget hardware has long been a popular talking point among free software advocates. Yet in recent years, the system requirements of mainstream desktop Linux distributions have been skyrocketing. At the same time, Windows 8 is slated to demand fewer resources than its predecessors. What could this mean for Linux? Here are some thoughts.

Before we get ahead of ourselves — and I get flamed for spreading FUD — let’s state the obvious: Linux still can be plenty friendly to old or otherwise “slow” computers. The Damn Small Linux distribution, for example, can be installed in full on as little as 50MB of disk space, and run perfectly well on a 486 processor — with a graphical user interface. It’s not the Linux kernel that’s become resource-hungry, but the distributions that are built on top of it.

In addition, system requirements are always a fuzzy thing. A geek who tries hard enough can often get things working with fewer resources than those recommended as a bare minimum, and computers that meet the suggested standards sometimes perform well short of acceptably.

System Requirements, Now and Then

Nonetheless, it’s clear the official system requirements for leading desktop Linux distributions have been on the rise steadily in recent years.

The desktop edition of Ubuntu 8.04 demanded 5GB of disk space and as little as 64MB of memory. Fast forward to the present and the recommended minimum system requirements for Ubuntu are 15GB of disk space and 1GB of memory.

The hardware requirements for Fedora, another leading version of desktop Linux, are a bit lighter than Ubuntu’s, but still have demonstrated a similar trend over recent years. Circa Fedora 11, which debuted in June 2009, the operating system could run a graphical desktop on 192MB of memory. In Fedora 16, released last month, that number has more than tripled to 640MB, with 1152MB as a recommended minimum (compared to 256MB in Fedora 11).

What’s more, at the same time that disk and memory requirements have expanded, a 3D-capable video card has also become essential for a complete desktop experience. The current desktop interfaces of both distributions — Unity on Ubuntu and GNOME Shell on Fedora — are designed for computers that support 3D effects. Fallback options are currently offered for hardware that’s not up to par, but they compromise usability and likely will not be around forever.

The Mobile Turn?

It may seem unremarkable that the hardware requirements for Linux distributions are on the rise — after all, that’s been the clear trend in the computing world in general for decades and decades, and Moore’s Law remains on the mark.

But with the expansion of desktop operating systems onto smartphones and tablets, the situation has begun to change. Mobile hardware is not as powerful as traditional PCs, and developers have recognized that fact by slimming down the processor and CPU requirements of their code. The most obvious example is Windows 8, which — if Microsoft’s promises hold true — will demand fewer resources than its predecessor.

Granted, the projected system requirements for Windows 8 are still considerably higher for those than either Ubuntu or Fedora. And it’s silly anyway to measure the value of Linux only in comparison to its proprietary competitors.

Yet, given the stark increases in system requirements that mainstream desktop Linux has undergone in recent years, I wonder if these distributions might be setting themselves up for failure — or, at least, a more difficult ascent — as they hope to gain a foothold in the world of mobile computing, which Ubuntu Project founder Mark Shuttleworth recently earmarked as a goal for Ubuntu. If developers want to maintain consistency in the user experience across the PC and mobile versions of Linux — and to capture the attention of budget OEMs — they may need to stem the trend toward hungrier software.

Or maybe we’ll just end up running LXDE on our phones, which wouldn’t be that bad either.

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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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