November 17, 2000

Linux palmtop revolution on its way

Author: JT Smith

- by Dan Berkes -

Try to remember the last time you didn't hear a personal digital assistant warbling softly to its owner as you stood in line for the morning latte fix. For most of us, that sound of silence is nothing but a distant memory. Like a Florida ballot recount, the things are all over the place and the revolution has only just begun.Most current handhelds are nothing more than glorified day planners that, through the ingenuity of software developers, have been coerced into looking and acting like miniature computers. Go beyond the surface to see the compromises made to achieve those effects, and you'll understand why current palmtop development will soon stall without innovation.

That innovation has arrived in a big way and the driving force behind it is Linux. Even on a device just slightly larger than a credit card and powered by a pair of AAA batteries, a handheld running Linux can deliver the real-time multitasking desktop power that developers crave and users will hopefully demand.

Palm owes much of its success to being the first company to deliver a truly affordable handheld organizer to the masses. The half dozen or so companies slated to release their Linux powered wares next year are mindful of this fact, locked in a race to be first to market and market share with their new gadgets.

Agenda Linux VR3

At this point, the most likely contender to be first across the finish line and into your local computer superstore is the VR3 from Irvine, Calif.-based Agenda Linux. Slated to debut in January 2001, the translucent handheld device features a stylus driven grayscale display and VR Linux under the hood.

VR3 is probably the most Palm-like Linux PDA to be developed. The interface is similar in certain ways to Palm, including full compatibility with that products' infrared port. Hook it up to a serial port and telnet or FTP right on in to its miniature file system.

Samsung Yopy

Samsung's Yopy may not be the first Linux palmtop to hit the market, but it just might be one of the coolest. The Yopy features a full-color display with an as yet to be named flavor of Linux powering an organizer, MP3 player, and wireless Internet access all in a device roughly the size of a Compaq PowerPC. Later models will include support for voice recognition and the Bluetooth protocol.

Samsung seriously considered Windows CE for Yopy before settling on Linux, citing the wide availability of Linux and its growing community of software developers as major factors in making that decision.

Distribution and Survival

Getting the attention of consumers through print, radio, and television ads is the easy part of selling these new devices. In a market dominated by Palm and PocketPC, convincing retailers -- especially brick and mortar chain stores -- to grant valuable display space to this new array of products won't be easy.

Once the Linux advocates and gadget collectors have made their purchases, these companies will need the support of mainstream consumers for long-term survival. How do you sell a handheld organizer to a mass market that could probably care less about the operating system behind it?

For Samsung's Yopy, the hopes are that those extra multimedia features will be the "secret sauce" that wins over the consumer. Another company has tentative plans to integrate its device into a variety of wireless phones. The Palm compatibility features built in to the VR3 will likely be its strong selling point.

Accidentally or intentionally, most of the work involved with making Linux PDAs a success will likely fall into the hands of the open source community. The possibility of hundreds, even thousands of programs developed to run specifically on Linux handhelds without a dime of investment from manufacturers is enough to make any marketer drool.

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