Support for touch-enabled devices traditionally hasn't been high on the list of Linux kernel developers, who tend to focus their energies on more traditional computing platforms. But if all goes according to plan, future versions of the open source operating system may come with significant touch support built in, according to developers. And if that happens, it could have major implications throughout the channel.
Linux, of course, already powers a lot of touch-enabled devices, from Android phones to the Ubuntu Nexus 7 tablet. But the software that makes touch work for those platforms was generally developed on a case-by-case basis, since the Linux kernel itself lacks integrated support for touch-ready hardware.
That seems set to change, however--and the credit, at least partially and indirectly, goes to Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). As Phoronix reports, plans for version 3.8 of the Linux kernel, which is currently in development and will likely appear in the first months of the new year, include better implementation of the multitouch protocol specified for Windows 8.
According to kernel developers, multitouch support will now be easier to implement because Microsoft's latest protocol defines the requisite functionality with much greater precision than previous iterations. In addition, since Microsoft certifies hardware to work with multitouch on Windows 8, the Linux kernel can identify devices that Microsoft has approved to assume that they will perform as expected, eliminating much of the guessing that the kernel would otherwise need to do when telling the system how to interact with touch hardware.
Lest we give too much credit to Microsoft, of course, we should emphasize that Linux developers--and Benjamin Tissoires in particular--are the ones doing the hard work. But like it or not, the reality is that Microsoft's imposition of standards for touch support, which previously lacked a universal technical definition shared across the proprietary and open source worlds, is what has made it possible for the Linux kernel to begin emulating the touch technology of Windows 8.
If the kernel gains much better touch support, it will create major new opportunities for partners throughout the open source channel. Previous efforts to enhance multitouch features on Linux-powered devices have been the work of individual upstream projects with limited focus, such as the Multitouch project that Canonical began several years ago. In contrast, generic touch support in the kernel itself will make it easier to deploy open source platforms on a variety of devices where Linux currently enjoys a limited presence. Most importantly, it could open the door to much more widespread use of Linux on tablets, an area in which Canonical in particular has expressed eagerness to develop market share.
In a sense, the touch features planned for Linux 3.8 are a lot like the KVM project, which integrated virtualization technology into the kernel. Before that, there were plenty of virtualization platforms that worked on Linux, but embedding virtualization support into the heart and core of the operating system via KVM made it much easier to deploy Linux as a virtualization platform with minimal added costs and technical overhead. If Linux developers have their way, the same should also become true of touch technology.