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Lessons from a LinuxWorld

It's Not Just for Servers Anymore

Last week at LinuxWorld in San Francisco, we saw the expected contingent of server and IT technology.  If you’re stacking lots of blades into a rack these days, chances are Linux is involved.  Of course, we’ve been talking about Linux as an embedded operating system for quite some time now as well.  Companies like Wind River have been working to make Linux a viable option for device software support for several years now.

The advent of embedded computing platforms sophisticated enough to handle the likes of Linux is a relatively recent event.  Embedded computing has a history of low processing power, stingy memory resources, and meager I/O capability that has biased O/S selection toward small-footprint, minimalist implementations.  Now, however, those days are gone, and big-time operating systems are finding their way into our small form-factor devices.

In much the same manner as in the desktop and enterprise computing worlds, the Linux contingent in embedded devices has been primarily made up of open-source evangelists – those who believe in the righteousness and power of open source development and who aren’t afraid to get their fingers dirty with a little self-managed software integration.  On the other side, engineering teams who just wanted to get the job done often opted for fully-supported commercial operating systems.  Their priority was to focus on their value-added applications, to get their product to market with minimal fuss, and to have a support line to call if something was amiss with the operating system. 

These two cultural camps have held fast for quite some time – the commercial die-hards turning their heads at even the thought of open-source code in their carefully controlled designs, and the open-sourcers demonstrating a willingness to absorb almost any cost penalty to keep the faith of free software.  At this year’s LinuxWorld, however, we saw signs that the barrier is beginning to crack as some of the commercial-only folks are eyeing Linux as a contender (or even a winner) in their embedded OS selection derby. 

We viewed LinuxWorld as an opportunity to sample the trend for ourselves.  First, since we’re the embedded folks, we strolled past the rows of server racks to the Palm booth.  Palm’s entire booth was dedicated to the new, controversial Foleo “mobile companion”.  The Foleo attempts to bridge the gap between smartphone and laptop (is there a gap?) by creating a new device category. 

The Foleo is a low-cost (around $500), instant-on, Linux-based laptop.  While we won’t delve too deeply into the controversy here, those who want one say, “Hey, I can carry something much smaller and lighter than my laptop into Starbucks and not completely finish my Quad Nonfat Soy Venti Caramel Macchiato while I’m waiting for Windows to boot.”  Those who don’t want one say, “Why would I want yet another device to carry around with me when I’ve already got a laptop, a cell phone, and an MP3 player?”

Regardless of which camp you’re in, Foleo provides a perfect case study for our point about Linux as an embedded operating system.  Wind River Systems announced at the show that Palm had chosen Wind River Platform for Consumer Devices, Linux Edition, as the standard platform for future Foleo releases.  Palm’s choice is telling.  Certainly Palm is no stranger to spinning their own custom OS.  This has long been an option if your device doesn’t rely on an ecosystem of third-party developers to provide applications.  Palm has also already released devices based on Microsoft’s Windows CE, so they’re clearly up to speed on the most commercial of commercial OS offerings as well.  One might think this would be a logical choice if connection and compatibility with Windows-based applications was a priority.

The company’s choice of a commercially-supported Linux for what they hope will be a high-volume consumer device speaks to the maturing of Linux in the embedded space and to the crossover of devices one wouldn’t expect to find dependent on an open-source operating system.  Now that an increasing number of embedded devices are both connected and dependent on third-party applications, the OS selection becomes one of the most crucial factors in the eventual success or failure of the product.  Indeed, most of Palm’s booth at LinuxWorld was aimed at recruiting developers to create or port applications for the new device.  While the hardware configuration of the platform provides considerably less oomph than your average laptop (416MHz PXA27x, 128MB RAM, 256MB non-volatile memory), its fate probably rests mostly in Palm’s ability (or inability) to attract application developers from the open-source development culture.

While we maintained our fascination for embedded Intel architectures, we sat down for a chat with Johnny Wang, Product Marketing Manager for Via Technologies.  Via bills themselves as a differentiated, third supplier of x86 architecture chipsets and systems.  Indeed, during our visit, we were shown full-blown x86 systems with impressive performance specifications in a variety of embeddable form-factors.  “We focus on low-power, low-cost, small form-factor PC platforms,” Wang explains.  “In many markets, the power consumption of commodity chipsets is completely unacceptable.  Our processors and peripherals take advantage of integration and power saving technologies to deliver significantly more processing power per watt than conventional x86 processors.”

The ability to construct a low-cost embedded system around a conventional desktop-spec PC platform offers intriguing possibilities.  While we might not want to wait while XP or Vista boots on our smartphone, there are a number of “PC in different clothing” form factor experiments already hitting the market.  For mid-range and higher media devices, the ability to surf atop the PC infrastructure with only small incremental BOM cost and power consumption must be quite attractive.  Wang pointed out that a number of super-low-cost PC platforms have been adopting the Via chipset as well – showing that Via’s offerings can span the gap between the desktop and embedded worlds.  While Via’s market share is still microscopic compared with established gorillas like Intel and AMD, the company has done a good job creating a differentiated product line that will fit nicely into a number of niche markets – some of which may not remain quite so “niche”.

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