10 offbeat, odd, and downright weird places you’ll find Linux

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Why worry about the desktop when you’ve conquered everything else?

The OS that took over the world
Let’s just get this out of the way: this isn’t the year of Linux on the desktop. That year will probably never arrive. But Linux has gotten just about everywhere else, and the Linux community can take a bow for making that happen. Android, based on the Linux kernel, is so prevalent on mobile devices that it makes the longstanding desktop quest seem irrelevant. But beyond Android there are a number of places where you can find Linux that are truly odd and intriguing, and by “places” we mean both strange devices and weird geographical locations. This slideshow will show you that it’s always the year of Linux pretty much everywhere.

Robot milking machines
Leave it to the Swedes to come up with a kinder, gentler milking machine: a “voluntary milking system” that cows enter when they want to be milked and are rewarded with a delicious “dietary concentrate.” The decision-making smarts of the VMS are powered by a tiny single-board computer running a compact Linux distribution. This job ad from DeLaval, the company that makes the VMS, looking for a Linux software engineer, gives you a sense of what exactly is involved in making this dairy robot work.

In-flight entertainment systems
The seatback screens in airplanes that allow you to scroll through movies and listen to music are powered by Linux, more often than not. Panasonic pitches its systems to airlines in hilariously semi-informed fashion as “leveraging robust standards such as Ethernet, Linux, and MPEG”; based on the fairly easy-to-find tales online of these systems spontaneously rebooting mid-flight, they aren’t doing Linux’s rock-solid reputation any favors. At least one software expert accidentally figured out how to lock your system up, if you’re bored and feel like denying yourself in-flight movies some day.

The International Space Station
When I put out feelers to potential sources saying I was writing about Linux in odd places, the good people at the Linux Foundation were justifiably eager to tell me that the laptops that astronauts and cosmonauts use day-to-day on board the International Space Station run Linux; the Foundation had helped train staff to deal with, as they put it, “dozens of laptops [with] extensive development needs for a very small number of users.” The Linux Foundation folks were perhaps too kind to mention the reason why the ISS transitioned these computers to Linux: they used to run Windows, but they got terrible malware infections.

North Korea
Back in 1999, when I was an editor at IDG’s LinuxWorld site, our sysadmin was very excited to learn about Red Flag Linux, a distro being developed in China, a country that was only beginning to open its economy up to the West. While that distro seems to have mostly been a way to gain leverage in the Chinese government’s battle with Microsoft, North Korea is using open source to power its computers as it remains isolated: Red Star OS powers the Hermit Kingdom’s computers, even though the GUI’s been given a superficially OS X-like makeover.

Liquid Robotics is a company working to develop autonomous nautical robots — solar-powered, ocean-going versions of the drones that are becoming more and more ubiquitous in the skies. While the company is perhaps most famous for snagging Java developer James Gosling as its tech honcho, it’s also using Linux as the OS for its robo-vessels, which are going on year-long journeys. Think they’re encountering any real-life penguins out there in the water?

Crock Pot WeMo Smart Slow Cooker
You might think that the defining feature of a slow cooker is its simplicity: you put stuff in it, turn it on, it gets warm, and six or eight hours later you have a pot roast. But what if you can’t be there to turn it off in time? Well, you could buy the slightly more expensive model with a timer … or you could pay $130 for a Wi-Fi enabled Crock Pot WeMo Smart Slow Cooker, which runs on embedded Linux and is controllable from your cell phone, wherever you are! Sure, it seems to turn off when it loses Wi-Fi connectivity, but you don’t want to live with a non-Internet-capable slow cooker like some kind of medieval peasant.

Nuclear submarines
The U.S. nuclear submarine fleet has used Linux to power various systems for more than a decade, a development that began as important control systems started migrating up the stack from hard-wired individual components to overarching software. In particular, much of the sonar systems the Navy relies on are Linux-powered. Reliance on software makes security particularly important, and resistance to malware is one of the reasons the Navy rejected Windows. Not everyone shares their concerns, though: the U.K.’s Royal Navy apparently thinks that Windows is good enough for their nuclear subs.

Missionary work in Nigeria
The Transformational Eduction Network is a Christian missions organization operating throughout West Africa. One of their goals is to increase educational opportunity, and to that end they’re teaching students to use not just Windows, but Ubuntu Linux. Kwangs Dauda, the young Nigerian man shown in the photo here, was particularly excited about this aspect of his education, declaring that “When you learn how to use the computer you can preach through the computer.”

Barbie’s dream house, er, cubicle
A few years ago, in an attempt to modernize Barbie’s brand, Mattel came up with a host of possible new jobs for her. To help move past the “math is hard!” debacle, one of these new career paths was computer programmer — and while Barbie has her choice of development environments, her cube has some Tux the Penguin art, so we’re just going to assume she uses Linux. The Liberal Murmurs blog spun a tale in which she became a Debian developer, but we must regretfully admit that this remains non-canon as of press time.

Terrible, pointless computers
Sure, any OS can run on a good computer. But Linux is famous for being able to run anywhere, any time, no matter how ill-advised. So why not put it on a system powered by an 8-bit microcontroller, which you use to emulate a 32-bit ARM chip, with the whole thing running effectively at 6.5 Khz and taking two hours just to boot to a command line? Why not install it on a dead badger? (Do not attempt on a live one, as they have claws and teeth and such.) It’s Linux’s flexibility and suitability for even the most ill-advised environments that make the other actually useful weird Linux installs in this slideshow possible.

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