GM recently announced that it is working with Red Hat, a well-known Linux company, to work on vehicle operating systems. This could prove to be a big deal, but to explain why, I need to take some readers back to the 1990s.
When it came to personal computers, it used to be that everyone used proprietary operating systems, and most often Microsoft Windows during the 1990s and early 2000s. For those of us who were old enough to use the internet in the mid-to-late 1990s, something different happened once our computer stopped emitting ear-splitting dial-up internet tones. If not the first computer we dialed into, the server feeding us webpages was probably running something other than Windows or Classic Mac OS. A Unix or Linux server worked tirelessly, behind the scenes, giving us our daily dose of animated dancing babies and hamsters.
This silly playground became serious business for all of us over time as the web did more work and less play for the average person. While many people used computers to waste time on the internet in the 1990s, businesses and governments were putting it to much more productive use. Companies providing decent products and services made heaps of cash, while incumbent players in a number of markets lost their shorts to better internet alternatives almost overnight. Companies like Red Hat offered Linux support and services to serve the growing market of internet-based and internet-connected companies.
However, Linux was still largely behind the scenes at the turn of the millennium. For most of the 2000s, only creative or trendy types tended to use Mac OS while hard core nerds did anything on a personal computer with the increasingly easy to use distributions of Linux. If you wanted to be adventurous like I did, but were only a lowly computer technician, you could delete Microsoft Windows from your computer and replace it with something like Ubuntu with little to no problems.
While Linux worked well for most of the things I did as a student, it wasn’t something most people would seriously consider. You could find decent open-source alternatives for most common computing tasks, but for some specialized jobs, your only option for good software would only run on Windows, or maybe Mac OS X. Because we tend to buy computers for everything we’d use a computer for, and because you could only get a few computers with Linux pre-installed, most people just weren’t interested in giving Linux a chance for a desktop computer. Even the most nerdy of nerds at the time only put it on their old computer when they built or bought a new one.
Toward the end of the 2000s, something big happened: the iPhone. Sure, smartphones had been around since the 1990s, but the early ones were just a basic personal data assistant (or PDA) with a phone built in. You could only do basic things like keep track of appointments, take down notes, play puzzle games, or maybe read the Bible on Sundays. They were expensive, not terribly user-friendly, and didn’t let you do nearly as much as you could on a laptop or desktop computer. The iPhone pioneered a much more user-friendly experience that proved the smartphone was a viable device everyone would want in their pockets.
This is where Linux made its big leap into the mass market. Android OS had been in development since 2003, first with plans to serve as a digital camera operating system, and then as a potential competitor to PDA operating systems like Windows Mobile. In a particularly forward-looking move, Google bought the company and its Linux-based operating system. By improving it and offering it to smartphone manufacturers, Android became not only the most widely used smartphone operating system, but also became the most widely used operating system on the internet.
Today, most things that happen on the internet involve at least one Linux computer. A plurality of internet users are using Android Linux to access websites, the majority of which run some flavor of Linux. We’ve gone from Linux being something a few nerds used to it dominating the web on both sides.
Linux Continues To Bypass Microsoft’s PC Dominance
Today, Microsoft still continues to dominate the computer OS market. The iPhone propelled Apple computers to higher than ever market share, but they’re still in the single digits. Android is the most widely used OS on the internet, but that’s only because phones outnumber computers. For example, my family of 6 has 3 computers and 6 Android smartphones. We also have 4 Chromebooks, but those are basically smartphones with bigger screens and keyboards, and aren’t full-featured computers.
While Microsoft dominates the computers (two run Windows, and this one I’m writing on runs Ubuntu), it loses the wider war against Linux in the household (10 Android devices and the lone Ubuntu machine vastly outnumber Bill’s drones). And this is before we start looking for embedded computing devices, like smart TVs, internet routers, and other “internet of things” devices. Now that our grandmothers are sending Facebook messages from smart toasters, Linux is probably there, too.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Linux has left our houses and our pockets, and is now invading our cars. Infotainment systems are where most of this started, mostly because automakers realized that their infotainment systems suck. Fortunately, Linux is already working well on touchscreens, and the code to make all of that happen is open source (so you don’t have to pay someone to use it). More forward-looking automakers, like Tesla, have been putting fully-featured computers running Linux in cars for a decade, so this is nothing new.
But, if you want things to work well, you have to hire experienced Linux developers (which Tesla did). As other automakers decide to do the right thing and follow suit, they have options. Automotive Grade Linux is one such option that we’ve written about before, but it isn’t anywhere close to the only option for putting Linux on wheels.
GM Decided To Go With Red Hat Linux
In a recent press release, GM decided to go all-in on buzzwords, and call vehicles with onboard computing “software-defined vehicles.” While there is some truth to using that term, we have to keep in mind that software has been running important vehicle systems for 50 years. Electronic fuel injection, the better second-generation airbags that didn’t summarily execute smaller women for getting in a collision, and now whole CAN bus networks are common.
What’s different now is that they need a computer that remains stable and secure despite needing to interact with both the vehicle’s occupants and servers on the internet. Microsoft is a lot better than it used to be, but given the unstable and insecure history of Windows, you probably don’t want to call Microsoft up if you’re trying to put a computer in a car. Instead, automakers are turning to Linux like everyone else with a brain has since 2000.
Specifically, GM is going with the Red Hat In-Vehicle Operating System, a version of Linux that has been certified to run stable enough to trust your car with it.
“General Motors is now a platform company and working with Red Hat is a critical element in advancing our Ultifi software development,” said Scott Miller, GM vice president, Software-Defined Vehicle and Operating System. “Incorporating the company’s expertise in open source solutions and enterprise networks will pay dividends as we aim to provide the most developer-friendly software platform in the industry. With Red Hat’s operating system as a core enabler of Ultifi’s capabilities, the opportunity for innovation becomes limitless.”
“With millions of lines of code sustaining critical systems like driver assistance, fuel economy and more, modern vehicles are more like mobile high performance computers than the cars of the past. The time to innovate is now,” said Francis Chow, Red Hat vice president and general manager, In-Vehicle Operating System and Edge. “These new vehicles give our industries a chance to create a common open platform without sacrificing functional safety. By collaborating with GM on the Red Hat In-Vehicle Operating System, we intend to bring the era of open source to the automotive world, benefiting automakers, ecosystem partners, and consumers.”
Featured image provided by Red Hat and General Motors.