As our software becomes more Web-centric and our devices cheaper, Linux is becoming the operating system on everyone’s lips for 2009. Sorry, Microsoft [MSFT ]. If this week’s news is any indication, you’ve been served.
The biggest catalyst for the Linux revolution will be netbooks: Gartner [IT ] has predicted that about 8 million of the diminutive machines will be sold next year, with that number rising to 50 million (yes, 5-0 million) by 2012. Right now, many netbooks come pre-loaded with Windows XP, but Microsoft has set a deadline of June 2010 for XP installations. Since most of the machines in question feature low-power chips like Intel's [INTC ] Atom  and inexpensive parts, and sell for less than $500, Windows Vista isn’t really an option; the per-machine licensing fee is too high, and the software itself is too bulky and power-hungry for low-end hardware.
The way Windows is built is also anathema to the netbook philosophy. It’s coded to index, browse and execute local files quickly and easily -- a task that is almost moot on netbooks, which are geared toward working on the Web. Windows is also geared towards handling multimedia, which netbooks don’t have the hardware for; small hard drives, no optical drives, and weak video cards mean that DVDs and music aren’t really an option in the first place. All the lowly netbook really wants is something to connect it to the almighty cloud -- everything else is just dead weight.
So it comes as no surprise that Canonical Limited, the organization that runs Ubuntu Linux distribution, has been collaborating  with processor-maker ARM to design a version of Linux that is specially geared towards netbooks. ARM designed the processor inside Google’s open-source smartphone, the G1, and there's a rumor that an ARM-powered Apple netbook is on the way . Existing versions of Linux can usually run fine on most netbooks, but they haven’t truly been designed as Web-only. They’re usually just bare-bones desktop operating systems with simplistic interfaces. As such, they tend to turn off consumers, who find them clumsy to use, therefore returning Linux based computers 4 or 5 times as frequently as Windows machines. ARM and Canonical mean to overcome that initial consumer discomfort, but to do so, they’ll need a Linux version that is clean, intuitive and downright pretty.
Handhelds are also turning towards open-source solutions to evade the cost and bulk of Windows. Palm [PALM ] has been hinting  this week that it will launch a new platform at the Consumer Electronics Show on January 8, in an effort to claw its way back into competition with RIM [RIMM ] and Apple [AAPL ], makers of the BlackBerry and iPhone 3G. In the past, Palm has used both its own proprietary Palm OS as well as Windows Mobile, but the Palm OS is in desperate need of better Web integration and Windows Mobile has only acted as a stop-gap in Palm’s loss of smartphone marketshare (the device maker posted losses of $41 million last quarter). Analysts are roundly predicting something Linux-based to come from the device-maker come January.
So why are these companies turning to Linux instead of building their own platforms from scratch? Well, it’s clear that the software inside many netbooks and smartphones needs to be reconceived, for purposes of both functionality and merchandising. If consumers see a new Palm OS that looks anything like they old, they’ll assume it’s the same as it's been for the last few years. But if it looks all-new and can back up its appearance with usability -- Palm might have a fighting chance at putting the Treo back on top. A great shortcut in the ground-up construction of an operating system is porting Linux drivers and utilities, which already exist and are cheap (or free) to use.
So where will all this leave Windows, and the Mac OS? It’s true that more and more of our work is aligning with the talents of cheap, durable and portable Internet devices that gain their access from the cloud, and neither Apple or Microsoft cater effectively to that niche. But there are certain things that the cloud just can’t handle: namely, processor-intensive multimedia work. And while consumers are certainly more reliant on Web services than ever, they’re also consuming, sharing, and creating digital video, large-format photography, music and presentations that are richer and more data-dense than ever before.
So Macs and PCs as we know them won’t be going anywhere, but as netbooks and smartphones proliferate, the total marketshare of Internet-capable devices enjoyed by Apple and Microsoft will be greatly diluted. That means that their respective operating systems will have to learn to play nicely with Linux -- a tall order for the industry’s two most stubborn companies. Unfortunately, they’ll have no choice; that’s the nature of a revolution.