Linux Supports More Devices Than Any Other OS

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 05, 2008

On the O'Reilly Media site, there is an intriguing interview with kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman. Kroah-Hartman says he has evidence that Linux now supports more devices than any other operating system.

In the lengthy interview, he talks about why this is true now, and how hardware suppliers and open source developers can work together to bring more peripherals to life.

I've had peripheral hardware not work in Linux. I've had it happen more than a few times in the past, and even now, yes, it does still happen. (I also had a printer with the world's worst Windows drivers that could only be used with Linux, but that's another story.) Kroah-Hartman doesn't deny that there are devices that don't work. He says a vast number of peripheral devices do work, and that fact initially surprised him, as well.

I was reviewing a (non-Linux, but open) operating system recently, and had a number of problems with various hardware components on the two machines I had for testing. When I wrote about the difficulties I had, I was contacted by a reader who said that the system in question worked on a wide variety of hardware. No doubt it did, but it didn't work on the hardware I had available at that time. If I were not just reviewing the software, if I were evaluating it for or attempting to deploy it in a work environment, the only hardware in the world that would matter would be the hardware I had in front of me.

Kroah-Hartman addresses this point -- Linux, in this case, supports a vast majority of peripherals. Users don't care about the vast majority, they care about what they have, and when something doesn't work, Kroah-Hartman says, it becomes, understandably, personal.

To this end, Kroah-Hartman started the Linux Driver Project. He extended the offer to hardware companies that the Linux Driver Project team would write and maintain their drivers, free of charge. Kroah-Hartman said that he quickly took on nearly 300 developers. And the companies?

He tells O'Reilly Media that the response there was initially pretty disappointing, but is starting to garner interest, with some manufacturers even asking for drivers to be developed before their hardware hits the market. He says that a number of larger companies, such as Dell, IBM and HP said that there weren't devices they were shipping currently that didn't already have Linux support.

A year ago, Kroah-Hartman says, some of the devices with the biggest issues were webcams and wireless devices. The latest kernel release supported a new class of webcam drivers, so that nearly all webcams, new or legacy, should work with Linux. He says wireless was messy a year ago, but many hardware manufacturers are opening their wireless drivers (such as Atheros) or are very well supported (such as Intel and Marvell). He said that even though Broadcom's drivers are closed, they do offer drivers for Linux.

Kroah-Hartman credits much of the peripheral device support to the fact that Linux is the leading system on embedded computers and that it powers 80% of the top 500 supercomputers globally. Though the desktop and consumer markets might have seen some lag in support, the inroads Linux has made with embedded devices and netbooks seems to be turning the tide.

It may not ease your frustration when that one peripheral you need to work doesn't, but it is encouraging to know that your options for getting supported hardware (or better support for the hardware you have) are forever expanding. It seems the old rule of thumb that it's better to buy slightly older peripherals to guarantee Linux support will be history -- if it isn't already.