What does Intel’s Atom Announcement Mean to Linux

jzemlin's picture

Last year (2007) saw over 20 million Linux-based phones ship to end-users in Asia, Europe and also North America. In 2008, Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and other handset OEMs will handily outpace that number by 50% or more (Informa); Linux phones will account for at least a quarter of “smart phone” sales by 2010 (Informa, Diffusion) and will participate strongly in even higher volume feature phone and entry-level segments.

Driving this adoption has been a mix of factors unique to Linux as an embedded/mobile operating system:

- low impact upon both s/w and h/w Bills-of-Materials in cost-sensitive systems
- open, brand neutral and flexible, providing opportunities for differentiation by OEMs and mobile operators
- synergy with desktop, data center and carrier grade Linux and other embedded Linux applications
- innovation and leadership from both community and corporate entities

This week Intel announced the Atom and Centrino Atom chipsets that extend the company’s desktop and server CPU architectures into smaller, lower-powered mobile form factors. While first and foremost targeting MID (Mobile Internet Device) applications like web pads and UMPCs, Atom family chipsets extend the reach of Intel-based designs and of desktop Linux into a new world of mobile and embedded devices.

These processors, according to Intel Executive Vice President and Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Sean Maloney, are “small yet powerful enough to enable a big Internet experience”. And Atom-powered devices will run Linux out of the box.

The economics of combining Atom with Linux are pretty compelling. Think of it this way; the highest cost components of a PC, smart phone, or mobile internet device are often the chip and the operating system software. Combine Intel’s impressive price performance with Linux’s low cost and you open up whole new markets.

Atom will let mobile manufacturers leverage investments to date in both desktop and mobile Linux implementations (something Windows cannot easily do with disparate and unwieldy code bases for desktop and embedded). Atom will join the ranks of other ubiquitous embedded CPU architectures (ARM, Power, MIPS et al.), and together with embedded/mobile Linux will offer OEMs and consumers compelling price-performance and user experiences.

The best part is that this trend will snowball; more Linux devices begets more people using Linux. The more people using Linux, the more bugs get reported. The more bugs reported, the better the code. The better the code, the more people will want to use Linux. The more people want to use Linux, the more Linux devices and applications. You get the picture.