May 25, 2001

Open Source development and handhelds: A match made in heaven?

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

You don't have to read a lot of technology news before you run into a story about handhelds and wireless devices being a potentially hot platform for Open Source development. A handful of companies, including Sharp, are planning Linux-based handhelds, and tech research firms are acknowledging a potential for growth.

Wireless industry heavyweights Motorola and Nokia are also embracing Open Source development.

But does Open Source development offer any special advantages to coders and companies creating applications for handheld and wireless devices? People working in the field say most of the advantages for Open Source handheld development are the same as those for any Open Source project -- a worldwide group of developers contributing ideas that improve your code.

So what makes the handheld and wireless markets ripe for Open Source development?

Tony Fader, vice president of sales for Transvirtual Technologies, the company responsible for the PocketLinux handheld development platform, says part of the reason for optimism is the overall potential of the handheld market. Fader quotes a study from saying that revenues from "wireless intelligent terminals," including everything from email-enabled cell phones to Web-connected PDAs, were nearly $600 million in 1999, and are expected to jump more than six fold to $4 billion in 2003. (Although other business prognosticators are questioning the viability of the handheld market.)

"The embedded markets are entering a time of explosive growth without
any single market leader," Fader says. "As more hardware and content manufacturers
enter these markets, leveraging open standards and open source software is of obvious advantage. The Linux kernel, especially, is well suited to work on new embedded hardware platforms."

Fader and others argue that low-bloat Linux, with its ability to run on old computers, is also a natural for handhelds, with less RAM and hard-drive space than desktops. "Linux can have a very small footprint, and ... any Open Source solution is a natural for the economies of scale apparent in the electronics mass markets," Fader adds.

Others say Open Source development does provide distinct advantages for the wireless device sector, where each device may have unique needs. "I would argue that without source code, you can't tailor the OS the way you want, to support the new
devices/communications styles you want, etc.," says Keith Bigelow, director of product management for Lutris Technologies, maker of the Enhydra wireless server. "Additionally, with closed source ... I still have to pay per unit fees, I have no control if they kill it, and so on. Further, Linux was architected
as a clean kernel with many services [very plug and play in nature], so
removing from the platform certain behaviors doesn't destroy the product itself,
as a monolithic code base would."

Bigelow's taking a shot at Microsoft's frequent changes of direction in its wireless operating system plans. But what of the supposed disadvantages that companies like Microsoft warn of, this giving your code away for free issue?

David Young, chief evangelist for Lutris Technologies, says that code sharing is an advantage, because it helps create standards and define best practices in the young wireless industry. With developers everywhere looking at high quality code, it's easy for the best standards to emerge, Young says.

While working for a tech company in the '80s, Young and other coders would get nervous when their bosses called for a code review. "All of us engineers would absolutely freak out about someone looking at our code, but that's a natural way of being in the Open Source arena -- it's 24 by seven by worldwide code review," he says. "[Open Source] tends to streamline the dissemination of information, so that a kid in a garage in South Africa knows exactly what an engineer at Nokia knows ... They can participate as peers in the Open Source arena."

Young also thinks the wireless space has an advantage because the Open Source development model has matured, and "people understand how to play in the Open Source sandbox."

Young can't bring himself to think of a disadvantage, although he and officials from other Open Source companies say the scores of coders who contribute to their products can sometimes throw them a curve ball.

In Lutris' case, the curve ball came from developers in Sweden and Taiwan, Young says, who recognized the company's XML feed would work with wireless devices. "Literally, overnight, all of the sudden we were in the wireless space," he says. "If you can view that as a downside, basically we had a technology which was evolving in a direction we weren't totally prepared for. The counterbalance to that is we knew we had a technology that was relevant. Basically, the folks around the world said, 'This is what we need in an application server.' "

Seungchae Cheong, sales manager for America and Europe at Yopy handheld maker G.Mate, says the only disadvantage for Open Source development right now is that the Linux-run handheld has few applications, compared to larger competitors in the handheld operating system space. But that's not an Open Source issue, Cheong says, just one of timing.

But Cheong expects "great things" from the community of developers working on the Yopy project. "One [advantage] is the possibility that all developers
in the world can create the various applications with free Open Source."

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