TECH TALK: Linux World: Embedded Linux
Digital gadgets are proliferating rapidly. cellphones, PDAs, hybrid smart-phones, MP3 players, digital cameras, game consoles, DVD players – all are making their way into our lives. From being isolated devices they are becoming part of a network and that significantly increases what their capabilities. Thus, cameras which earlier would take photos on film now in their new avatars are focused on enabling sharing of the images with family and friends through the Internet. The camera becomes a spoke to a digital hub. The same is the story with MP3 players, which can play downloaded files giving us music wherever we want and whenever we want. Game consoles become gateways to the Internet allowing for multi-player, online gaming.
This is the post-PC era: an era where the PC does not necessarily become defunct, but its value is enhanced as it becomes the hub around which many devices can be integrated. This is a world of embedded software, where the operating system game is still open. This is a world where embedded Linux can serve as the preferred development platform.
Writing in Linux Journal (February 2002), Rick Lehrbaum points out some of the attributes of the coming era:
- The number of smart devices (i.e., products with embedded operating systems inside) will grow exponentially, reaching numbers in the billions.
- The choice of CPU will be more a matter of cost than technology or architecture.
- Nearly all devices will have connectivity, whether wired or wireless.
- Most devices will have the ability to be upgraded or repaired remotely, by downloading new firmware or software.
- Most devices will have specific rather than general-purpose functionality, so their application software will be defined by the manufacturers (rather than loaded by their users).
This need to, in the words of Rick, “minimize cost and maximise specialization” creates the opportunity for Linux. The Sharp Zaurus, a PDA, which runs Linux is one example of the new generation of devices. HP’s Digital Entertainment Center, a home-entertainment appliance that g digital music and information into the home without a PC, runs Linux and Java. Sony announced support for Linux on its Playstation game console.
Linux has the momentum going for it. Going by the interest from the major computer vendors, Linux is becoming mainstream. According to Dan Gillmor, “the future for [Linux] is both above (servers) and below (embedded) the desktop.” While it is too premature to write off Linux on the desktop in emerging markets, the challenge is significant in creating innovative business models to make it work.