Low End Linux?

Last week I was reading an article [no longer online] about how one county was saving several million dollars a year by implementing Linux on all it’s desktops. It wasn’t only the Information Technology department – it was secretaries, receptionists, firefighters, police officers, and other county employees.

Back and Forth

The technology wasn’t new, but the county had a good end-to-end solution. Their terminals were lightweight computers without a hard drive that net-booted off a server. Software updates were done automatically, and the terminals were relatively easy to use. By having reliable computers and a central server, the Information Technology department could manage many more workers than if they had a Windows-based network

Mac II with color displayIt was a fascinating look at the new low end. Nearly every week, someone on Low End Mac will make this observation: “You don’t really need a <insert fastest Mac model> to do word processing or email.” Heck, I bet people have been saying that since the Mac IIfx. You don’t really need a Mac IIfx for word processing – you can get by fine on a Mac SE or a Mac II.

But the low end is not where Apple focuses now. Indeed, Mac OS X only works on computers that originally shipped with a G3 or G4 processor. Almost by definition, Apple can’t make a new simple Mac for word processing and minor Web use. The iMac is much too expensive and much too powerful to really be a low-end computer.

In the world of Linux, things are quite a bit different. Because Linux is often run on discarded computers, the operating system does not impose requirements unless they are actually required. Linux may have better performance on a faster computer, but it can work on slower computers. And it is possible to strip away functionality to improve performance.

This means that Linux companies can actually target the low end with new computers. They can use an inexpensive processor that doesn’t draw much power, because the operating system doesn’t require a faster one. For example, many embedded Linux computers now use the StrongArm processors that were found in Apple’s Newtons.

Quadra 800

The Newton 2000, an amazing handheld that still doesn’t have an equivalent on the market, used a StrongArm processor that let it have approximately the processing power of a Power Mac 8100 – but it ran on AA batteries. It’s a very exciting chip, and I’m glad that Palm has plans to make handhelds with it in the next year or so.

Linux can really exploit the StrongArm. If you stick with Apple, the only way to get about an 8100’s worth of processing power is to buy a Power Mac 8100 (it’s huge!) or possibly a PowerBook 1400 or so. These are great low-end Macs, but you can’t buy one new. And if even if you could, you would not be able to run Mac OS X on them.

With Linux, you can buy a new computer that has a mix of new and old features. For example, you could have a computer with AirPort compatibility but that had a very simple video card. In contrast, every current Mac has a 3D graphics accelerator that is much more muscle than is actually required. There’s no way to get AirPort on a new Mac without getting a graphics accelerator.

Likewise, with Linux you can get a mix of new and old software functionality. For example, you can get modern OS features like preemptive multitasking and enhanced stability and combine it with a retro email program that is text-based.

Linux is not without it’s problems. Next week, I’ll continue my look at Linux and the low end. What seems to be Linux’s supreme asset could also be it’s fatal flaw.

Keywords: #linux #strongarm

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