February 18, 2004

Embedded Linux becoming 'disruptive force'

Author: Chris Preimesberger

UPDATED PALO ALTO, Calif. -- These days, embedded Linux for consumers pretty much means TiVo, a Sharp Zaurus handheld, or the wireless LAN gateways you may having running at home. Although EL is not exactly taking IT by storm at the moment -- and because a whole lot of experimental EL products have come and quickly gone -- it is nonetheless establishing its own place in the world. And there are those who firmly believe that EL will play an increasingly important role in gadgets to come.

"Right now, EL is a disruptive force in the embedded software industry," said
Rick Lehrbaum, founder and editor of LinuxDevices.com and former founder/CEO of embedded board maker Ampro Computers, Inc. Why? "Because of the upsurge in Linux in general, and because of the inherent advantages it contains."

Lehrbaum, a 25-year veteran of the embedded systems world, presented a state-of-the-market snapshot of EL recently at a emerging technology SIG sponsored by SD Forum, offering insight into what is happening on that front.

EL moves into the Top Three

"Embedded Linux is now considered one of the top three most-utilized operating systems in the embedded software industry," he said, "along with Wind River Vx and QNX, which are both wonderful in what they do. One of the big advantages EL has is that it supports most 32- and 64-bit embedded processors on single-board computers, while others do not."

It's difficult to single out who the leading suppliers are in the embedded Linux world, said Murry Shohat, executive director of the Embedded Linux Consortium. "Actually, IBM is probably the world leader," he said. "As far as pure-play Linux is involved, it's hard to say, because some companies are privately held and don't make their sales information public, and some public companies don't break everything down into that kind of detail."

In reality, the biggest distributor of embedded Linux is kernel.org, Shohat said. "It all starts with pure Linux, the Linus Torvalds brand, the free distribution."

Among the pure-play, commercial embedded Linux vendors, market research firms IDG and Gartner Group cite MontaVista Software in their surveys as the No. 1 embedded Linux supplier at this time. Others are Red Hat, MetroWerks, Lineo, Phoenix, TimeSys, LynuxWorks, and Arcom.

The mobile phone market is a different story. EL is in tough competition with Symbian (a consortium that will soon be dominated by Nokia, which uses it in half of its phones now), Microsoft's Windows Mobile, PalmOS, and QUALCOMM's BREW. In fact, EL has a long way to go to get into the game against those formidable competitors; it is in the low single-digits in market share.

Outside the mobile phone world, though, EL may be catching more attention from developers for future projects due to the general upturn in the economy and momentum in the Linux camp as a whole, but the fact is that a lot of people have already tried and failed to come up with workable Linux devices. "(Korea's) Sharp, so far, is the only big company to utilize it in a big way to make some money," Lehrbaum said. "Check out these pages on our site to see some of the devices that have come and gone," he said with a smile.

You'll find numerous PDAs, cameras, music and video players, mobile phones, tablets and "Webpads" -- even robots -- in his listing. Only few of them are still available at this time, however. Survival of the fittest, as in any market, is the law of the jungle; unfortunately, a lot of EL devices apparently haven't been fit for public consumption from the outset. Maybe they were too expensive at the time, didn't work well enough -- or perhaps they were just ahead of their time.

Some background

A little history may be in order for those not familiar with the subject. EL first showed up on IT radar screens in 1999, and Lehrbaum started LinuxDevices.com on Halloween that same year. At the time, there were three main EL companies: Lineo (which acquired Zentropix, changed its name to Embeddix, then was acquired by Morotola/MetroWerks); Lynx Real-Time Systems (which later became LynuxWorks and now markets the proprietary LynxOS in addition to BlueCat Linux); and MontaVista. Those companies are still among the market leaders, although plenty has changed in five years.

Lehrbaum said EL features the following key advantages:

  • low-power, low-memory
  • small footprint
  • headless operation
  • quick booting
  • designed expressly for real-time operation
  • supports most 32- and 64-bit processors

"Most embedded Linux applications get their start from the regular enterprise development environment," Lehrbaum said, "and then are adapted for embedded requirements. It's easier than one might think to go through that process."

Lehrbaum said there were some key milestones for EL in 2003, including the launching by the Embedded Linux Consortium of new standards projects for graphics, real time processing, and others. "That's been the central problem for years -- the lack of clear standards in the EL space," Lehrbaum said.

Improvements in Linux itself have greatly helped the embedded version. "The Linux 2.6 kernel has much-improved embedded capabilities," Lehrbaum said. "It can now be ported to more processors in addition to ARMs and RISCs -- like x86, PPC, MPS, even DSPs."

One of the biggest new EL projects involves Motorola, which has started selling its EL-based A760 high-end smartphone in the Asia Pacific region. This project was truly a team effort; ELC members Motorola, MontaVista, and MetroWerks all pitched in. This phone runs MontaVista Linux, and Motorola's developers relied on tools from both MontaVista and Metrowerks. Motorola plans to introduce the phone in Europe and the U.S. later this year.

Motorola is planning broader use of embedded Linux in its cellular products, but widespread use of their EL phones is still years away.

IBM is planning to market a new telephone-camera combination unit using EL, possibly as early as this year. Other companies are using it in data collection devices, remote video cameras, and Webcams.

Some big-time companies, though, still aren't supporting EL in other products. Lehrbaum said he is concerned about Intel's Centrino mobile Wi-Fi chips for laptops, because Intel has its own set of hardware components that don't support Linux -- yet. "It's probably only a matter of time," he said.

Wind River woke up and 'smelled the coffee'

Even some of EL's competitors have realized that they had to get with it and have a Linux offering in their portfolio, because customers were asking for it. "As the No. 1 vendor in the embedded market, Wind River for years bad-mouthed EL and promoted their own Vx system, of course," Lehrbaum said. "But finally they had to listen to their customers, who continued to ask for Linux options. They were faced with shrinking revenues and had to make a key decision. They eventually woke up, smelled the coffee, and bought a BSD company -- now they support Linux.

"It's kind of like going to Bloomingdale's for a clothing item and not finding it ... in that case, Bloomingdale's goes across the street to Macy's to get you what you want."

Lehrbaum takes an annual survey of developers for LinuxDevices.com and will be publishing the latest one in March or April, he said. Although he wouldn't divulge details (he's still in the process of querying developers), there are a few general trends I can mention here that won't give away any of his thunder. The "intention" to utilize EL in forthcoming devices during the next two years is definitely up over last year; and more and more "home-grown" systems are being built using some form of Linux in them.

Key factors, Lehrbaum said, in considering EL include: cost (freeness), number of good toolsets available, good documentation available, dependable device drivers, and the fact that it takes only a small footprint in the device.


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