The inadvertent Linux user

Embedded Linux is on the rise, and may be found anywhere from the vehicle management system in your car to the smartphone in your shirt pocket. Montavista Linux, for instance, powers not only smartphones from Motorola, NEC and Panasonic, but Sony TV and media devices, Linksys wireless routers and Yamaha musical instrument systems.

Linux is deployed in more than 25 per cent of smartphones, and is second only in popularity to the Symbian operating system (OS) in that market. Experts are predicting a bright future for the OS, with ABI Research suggesting that it will appear on more than 200 million phones by 2012.

A different ball game

Both the market and the hardware are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with higher capacities of memory and processor power. Yet memory, battery life and processing power remain precious commodities. Linux may need more memory than a legacy RTOS system, but it is more scalable and parsimonious of RAM and flash than many of the systems with which it is in close competition. A Microsoft Windows Mobile system, for instance, requires 28-32 MB to be fully operational, whereas Linux can be deployed in less than a megabyte when necessary, and requires less than 11-12 MB to be highly functional, thus freeing memory for other uses and reducing the overall cost.

As in other sectors of the computer hardware industry, the manufacturers see direct benefits in supporting Linux and free software. If a company is giving away software that has brought it advantage, it is also gaining from the donations of its rivals.

Paradoxically, this willingness to collaborate encourages innovation in other aspects of the business. A new device can be brought to market much more quickly, and precious engineering resources are liberated to develop features further up the stack. Deploying Linux reduces the initial development costs, and perhaps more significantly, the absence of a licence fee significantly reduces the cost of each item sold, which is vitally important in a market where margins are slim.

Mutually-beneficial community ethos

Very few devices rely exclusively on open source components, but there is a wide ecosystem, consisting of developer communities and open source companies who provide stripped down kernels and support.

Intel and ARM both contribute extensively to the development of the embedded kernel. Sun provides a Linux based Java software development kit (SDK), and Trolltech provides the QTopia framework that is deployed on more than 30 smart phones.

ACCESS/PalmSource has moved the popular Palm OS platform onto the Linux kernel. "PalmSource is committed to Linux because we believe it provides the best foundation on which to build our middleware, user experience and applications," said PalmSource lead scientist, John Ostrem. "The benefits for PalmSource from Linux include enabling us to concentrate our resources on the differentiating parts of our technology, faster time to market, and support for a broader range of hardware." In short, Linux supports a wider range of processors in the embedded market than any other OS.

Similarly Michel Goossens, the vice president of sales and marketing for Red Hat JBoss in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), says that JBoss, the open source Java application server, has had rapid uptake among the telcos, because they need to develop new applications every day. "We play well with the Ericssons, the Nokias and Siemens of the world," he said, suggesting that they need to differentiate their products on an ongoing basis by creating in-house applications for a specialised market. "They have to move quickly [and the flexibility of JBoss, and the fact that the software is available with no-cost licences] is irresistible to such enterprises," he added.

Feature rich, user friendly

Many of the applications are fostered by the Nokia sponsored open source developer community, which boasts the participation of thousands of developers and whose declared aim is "to make maemo open, accessible and useful to all developers wanting to squeeze the possibilities of the mobile desktop and the internet," and claims the participation of thousands of developers. Maemo provides a vast range of additional office, communication and entertainment applications, and the Nokia n800 can function as a full-blown pocket sized PC, complete with features such as VNC which gives the ability to view any desktop environment on the network. The Nokia n800 is more obviously Linux based than other devices of its type, and may signal the way forward. The Evolution email client slots seamlessly into a Microsoft network, and web services are fully supported.

In essence, the fact that a PDA or smartphone is running Linux should be of little consequence for the enterprise user. The applications, connectivity and interoperability of such clients are limited only by the manufacturers' specifications.