Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Home Field Advantage

I was a little puzzled by the announcement that Ubuntu Netbook Remix would be "OEM-only," meaning that you'll be able to buy a netbook (or whatever you want to call your little device) with UNR on it, but you won't be downloading an UNR installer from Canonical. Rather than just ask someone at Canonical, I decided to try to figure it out, and here's my initial conclusion.

Basically, a Linux distributor does three things directly with software:

  • Modify and create software that is used in the distribution.
  • Package software.
  • Write an installer.

I can't imagine Canonical writing proprietary software as part of this project. Simply from a pragmatic point of view, they would be throwing away years of painstaking community and confidence building. It would wreck their brand. Also, I can't see them messing with their packaging system. It is central to everything they do.

What about the installer? Ah. What does a netbook installer even look like? You certainly can't count on one having a CD drive. USB? Also, they'll probably tend to ship with funky hardware by PC standards, like built in GPS, accelerometers and touchscreens. So creating a generic netbook install image that gives satisfactory results on an arbitrary netbook, as we've become used to in PC-oriented Linux distros, will probably be difficult.

And unnecessary, since netbook vendors have more incentive to squeeze every dollar out of their narrow margins by shipping computers with low software licensing costs, and the success of the Eee PC has demonstrated low cost mini-laptop users will use Linux without batting an eye, they've got more motivation to work directly with Canonical than PC vendors have in the past.

The clincher, which I'm afraid I didn't think of, but picked up on... erm, somewhere, can't find it now, is that UNR devices will ship with Flash and some patented media codecs, which can't be distributed on a regular free Linux ISO. Basically the OEM will be covering the licensing costs to include those things in the base install, but Canonical can't throw that stuff on the web themselves for everyone.

And now I see the UNR page on Launchpad, which fills out the story a bit more...

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