January 5, 2006

Texas Instruments, MontaVista Linux promise device interoperability

Author: Stephen Feller

Texas Instruments (TI) and MontaVista Software announced in December they would pair TI's DaVinci technology-based products with embedded Linux, part of an attempt to more tightly integrate hardware and software in digital media, as the electronics industry looks to make the gadgets in users' lives more interoperable.

The companies expect the series of products to provide a platform for companies to integrate more of the products they sell, so that users' desktop computers can communicate with their digital video recorder (DVR) set-top boxes, portable MP3 players, and other devices, said Huy Pham of TI's digital signal processor (DSP) system-on-chip (SOC) product marketing team.

Linux already occupies about 25% of the fragmented embedded operating system market for portable devices, and expectations are that it could reach nearly half of all devices over the next five years, according to Oren Teich, director of product management at MontaVista. He said TI and MontaVista are looking to offer product development teams an opportunity to better differentiate their products while allowing them to work together on basic levels.

The December announcement by the two companies was focused on two DSP-based SOCs for the digital video market, one with video decoding and the other with both decode and encode capability. Both chips, and others to come in the DaVinci product line, come with multimedia codecs, application programming interfaces (API), frameworks, and development tools to further facilitate product development.

"We tried to make it easier for [device manufacturers and designers] by doing a majority of the heavy lifting," Pham said of the two processors, the DM6443 and DM6446. The software platforms included with them come optimized with codecs for a range of formats and functions that include MPEG2, MPEG4, voice imaging, and speech audio. "We're integrating everything you need for a digital video platform."

Teich said the two products, as well as the Digital Video Evaluation Module (DVEVM) TI is offering, provides device developers with "building blocks -- you can mix and match as you see fit to enhance your development efficiency."

The DVEVM is a preview package that includes MontaVista Linux Professional Edition, peripheral codecs, and full video ports to test and then implement the sort of systems that TI is promoting with its new products. Because the companies are offering hardware and software that has been designed and tested to run together, Teich said product developers can focus on "innovation and faster time to market" because they don't have to spend time rewriting operating systems for each product.

"There really needs to be a lot more flexibility in these platforms to give differentiated solutions and avoid the commoditization that's going on," Teich said about devices that tend to have the same operating systems. With no difference between the capabilities from one device to the next, such as the similarity in mobile phone OSes, end users cannot tell the difference between manufacturers' phones and are limited as to what can be done on those phones, he said.

According to Teich, the benefit here is the ability to take a Linux distribution and focus specifically on their applications, without worrying about the kernel, device drivers, networking, or other settings.

Customer viewpoint

Brad McManus, director of the Panasonic Digital Concepts Center, said that from his company's point of view, the important trend in consumer electronics is a standardized software and hardware strategy that stresses the interoperability more companies and users are searching for. He said that while Linux is a big part of these moves, it is not necessarily the only solution to devices working together -- although Panasonic is using Linux in its products more and more.

"It allows us to achieve a number of objectives," McManus said. "Not only in reducing [research] costs in the design and development area ... but it also improves the interoperability of our devices. Panasonic is moving toward a standardized platform strategy, both on the software side and the hardware side."

Panasonic is moving toward greater usage of Linux in development of its products, which McManus said can be seen in what he called a huge increase of development teams within the company working with it. Where each of the company's products once had its own departments and product groups, as well as its own user interface, simply tweaking a standard OS for each device has made it easier to promote Panasonic products to further work together, he said. Indirectly, because developers can now work with similar user interfaces, the groups actually work together.

McManus declined to comment on any work Panasonic is doing with Texas Instruments, but he said the company has its own similarly standardized hardware platform called Uniphier. Basing several of its devices on standard hardware and software has allowed multiple product lines to be developed using the same tools at the same time.

The DaVinci line of products, specifically the two recently announced components, are expected to be used in DVR boxes and MP3 players, as well as other set-top boxes, videophones, video security systems, digital still cameras, and automotive infotainment, Pham said. The products also are expected to set up TI for contribution to digital video products that do not exist yet.

As part of offering developers more options by using Linux inside devices, Pham said the companies plan to launch a developer forum and software repository for what they hope will be a growing community when the processors ship sometime before the end of February.

The point of both processors, and especially the DVEVM, is to allow developers "to really plug and play," Teich said. By offering something with standards already in place, developers are able to take advantage of the wealth of software already open source and available for Linux -- and, he said, with the elimination of the time it takes to port software to hardware, it is easier to integrate software for specific devices.

McManus said the potential for developers to offer exactly what they want on the products they bring to market is not limited when it comes to using Linux because of its "open nature." And while he said it may be a new paradigm for companies to work with open source communities and use software created outside their walls that is available to anyone else who wants it, companies and users will both benefit from the shift.

"The consumer shouldn't have to know that there's Linux running [devices] as opposed to anything else," McManus said. "The whole point is to improve usability and ease of use. We wouldn't be shifting to Linux as an OS if it weren't a better solution."

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