Why we should care about wearable Linux

These thoughts have been inspired by the not-so-recent-anymore announcement of Apple Watch and by Jono Bacon’s post re Ubuntu for Smartwatches. They do not specifically refer to Ubuntu, and they reflect my personal opinion only.

Wearable devices are essentially another aspect of the Internet of Things. IoT is now expanded to include your clothes and tools, not to mention your body, or parts of it. In the next decade, people will experience the next generation of mobile applications, the ones that are now used to share your recent workout or your last marathon. Rest assured: there will be all sorts of new applications, and existing applications will be highly improved by the adoption of affordable wearable hardware.

Right now, the two main choices for wearable applications are IOS and Android platforms, understandably evolved to fit with the new hardware. A third and fourth option are based on Microsoft and Linux platforms, but at the moment there is very little to say about their ability to gather a good slice of the market.

Fact is, a market dominated by two companies who are already controlling 99% of the mobile applications, is not a good thing. Indeed, it is in their rights to take advantage from the huge investments they have made to build IOS and Android, but that does not mean that the world should not have other alternatives. Although it is not a walk in the park, Linux is the only platform that can rise as truly independent and have a chance to compete in this war.

Why wearable Linux is important to consumers

The majority of the applications we use are free. The cost of the platform, whether it is IOS or Android, is paid in other ways. One of them is the control over the applications available to the consumers. Apple and Google can decide what goes in and what stays out of your mobile devices, and the same will happen for your wearables. Any attempt to escape from this can be easily prevented by the owners of the technology. So, in simple terms, consumers have less choices and eventually less freedom.

Another aspect which is pretty concerning nowadays is data collection. This is and has always been the most controversial aspect of mobile applications. Terms and conditions may allow providers to take advantage from the the data collected through your smartphone or from your wearable in the way they want. It could even be “their data”, and for the consumers it would be just another way to pay for the “free application”. In the best case scenario, the data will not be used individually, i.e. it will not be connected to your name, but it will be aggregated together with many other users in order to analyse behaviours, define strategies, sell trends and results. In one way or another, rest assured that the data collected is a highly valuable asset for the technology providers.

Now, take these two aspects and consider them in connection to the availability and adoption of wearable Linux. A truly open platform, perhaps controlled in terms of technical choices but not in the way it will be used, will not prevent in any way the control of an app store or the data collection, but it will give you choice. Companies may be application providers or may even create their application store, more or less open than Google and Apple. Eventually, people will choose, and they will have more options. The choice is likely to be based on the applications available, but again it is up to the manufacturers and developers to offer an appealing product. This is not dissimilar from the choice of a Cloud infrastructure – for example comparing what you can do under the full control of a single provider in AWS or what goes with the adoption of OpenStack. To some extent, wearable Linux is just an important piece of a jigsaw that goes into the definition of an open infrastructure for IOT.

Why wearable Linux is important for developers and manufacturers

Take a look at the most prominent open source projects available today: the majority of them is backed by foundations and by companies working together, and then competing to provide the best solution on the market. This is not the case for Android, which is fully controlled by Google, not to mention IOS. Sure, Google is keeping Android open and is making it available to any developer and manufacturer. In a similar way, Apple takes pretty good care of its developers, but both companies  simply have their own agenda. A wearable stack which is part of a full platform developed within a foundation would have its internal huge politics, but also more contribution and independence. Put simply, there will be more players and more opportunities to do business in the biggest revolution in computers after the semiconductors.

From a more technical point of view, developers would immensely benefit from the use of the full Linux stack. If you look at the way Android and IOS have evolved, you will realise that the concept of lightweight has significantly changed since their early versions. On the other hand, some of the libraries available on Linux are not in Android, and this is a significant limitation for developers. Having a common platform where portability from the mainframe to a wearable, is a big, huge asset, and it is not inconceivable in modern scale-out infrastructures. Interoperability, robustness, rapid development and ease of deployment are not trivial aspects of a Linux wearable stack, something that would increase the amount of applications and competition in the market.

The essential takeaway is that wearable applications are a great opportunity to expand the current market of mobile infrastructures in order to introduce more players and competition, and to be ready for the next revolution of the IOT. Whether or not new and old companies will take this opportunity is still to be seen, but for us consumers it would only be positive in the long term.


From Mavericks to Trusty – Intro

I have been on Mac HW and OS X for 8 years now. I remember the evening in Santa Clara, when Colin Charles showed me his MacBook Pro 15”, still based on the Motorola chipset, and OS X. I fell in love with the sleek design of the MacBook, the backlight that in 2006 was like a “dough!” something so obviously helpful that nobody else had thought about it.

I moved from my Sony Vaio Z1 to a MacBook Pro 15” with Intel chipset in no time. I was so pleased I got rid of Outlook and the other clunky office tools, to use Apple Mail and others. I loved it so much.

Then the iPhone came, and then the iPad, and with it IOS and OS X were in some way converging. I now have an i7 MacBook Air 11 with 8GB RAM and 1/2TB Flash Drive, a dream machine for me: feather-light, real 5-6 hours batteries (the way I use it), all the power I need, with an obvious limitation in the non-retina small screen that I top up with a USB monitor when I really need to. The software improved, but it also changed a lot. OS X Mavericks is no longer the sleek and non-intrusive OS that I saw on my old MacBooks. There are lots of great features, but also some very annoying issues that I really do not like. Perfection is something you must aim at, but you will never reach it: this is the reality for software too.

In my work, I always needed to use Linux, in a way or another. So far, I used VMs and cloud instances, but now this is not enough. I need to move the core OS too, and I found this exciting. I am going to replace OS X with Ubuntu, specifically 10.9 Mavericks with 14.04 LTS Trusty.

I am not going to replace my hardware. I did some research, and the closest non-Apple laptop that I may want to use is the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition, but still, it is far, for many aspects, from the features that a MacBook can provide. But my decision is not only based on pure technology features. For 8 years, I have been spoiled by Apple. I found a limited but very clear choice of hardware, software and accessories available on the Internet and in the Apple Stores. On top of that, I have highly valued the reliability and the lifetime of a MacBook model.

Here is an example. In my search, I stumbled in a very interesting laptop, the Lenovo X1 Carbon. It was not a laptop of the size I was looking for, but I was intrigued by the performance and by its features. I looked at reviews and videos, then I wanted to check the official site, and here comes the surprise. For a laptop that wants to be at the top of the range and with its innovative design also a landmark, I found outdated web pages, I could not buy it online on official sites (certainly I can browse and find it on eBay), the “where to buy” section of the website pointed me at stores that showed all the laptops in a random way, many sites did not have that model at all. After a while, I simply gave up. The X1 can be purchased in the US from the Lenovo website.
Dell was different. In this case, there is a reliable source, which is the online store. Online, you can select, configure, check the specs and buy a laptop and you know what to expect inside the parcel delivered at doorstep. Dell also gives you a sense of continuity, with the product lines that have evolved a lot, but they still share a positioning and a target market with the previous models.

But as I said, I will stick with Apple hardware. It has been a difficult decision, since I know that Apple discourages in many ways users who buy their hardware then they install non-Apple software. Also, I know I am going to find issues with cards, components and new hardware. For example, my current MacBook Air has a PCI HD camera that does not have any Linux driver. But this, i.e. make my favourite hardware work against all odds, is a challenge that I like to take.

So, watch this space, I am going to update it with more info soon…