Business Week writes that “Linux is fast breaking out of its original stomping ground in servers and into cell phones, cars, telecom gear, consumer electronics…”
Do you use a Linksys Wi-Fi router to surf the Web wirelessly? You’re probably doing so using Linux. Drive a Volvo? Somewhere under the hood, Linux is running on key microprocessors that monitor the car. Watching video on a TiVO personal video recorder or smashing a home run in the 2004 World Series on a Sony Playstation game console? The penguin is the wizard behind all those curtains. For such uses, “Linux is emerging as the favored operating system,” says Scott Smyers, vice-president of Sony’s Network & Systems Architecture Div.
To date, embedded operating systems — unalterable software that runs microprocessors whose job is to perform a limited number of tasks — have remained a small piece of the tech market pie. In 2002, the global market for this type of software was only $675 million, according to Stamford (Conn.) tech consultancy Gartner. That should grow to more than $1 billion by 2007, a number that will still pale by comparison with the broader software and hardware markets.
Even so, embedded systems are a key underpinning of the trillion-dollar global electronics market, says Gartner analyst Daya Nadamuni. And in the future, they’ll take on an increasingly important role as cars become infotainment centers, cell phones become digital jukeboxes, and pacemakers transmit data wirelessly to hospitals to warn of a heart attack.
Cheaper and cheaper processors also are allowing electronics companies to build more and more computing power — and a wider range of capabilities — into everything from exotic medical-imaging equipment to tiny global positioning system location-tracking chips. “If a product only does one thing, it’s less important that there be an operating system on it. But as we see growth in multifunction devices, a real OS makes more sense,” says Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst with tech research firm In-Stat/MDR, based in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The ability to exert control over the software that runs these millions of devices will become a crucial checkpoint in the global economy. And Linux — “open-source” software that’s not only cheap but available to anyone to use or modify — is emerging as an enabling technology in this equation. For example, a maker of cell phones that incorporate an embedded Linux OS may find it easier to build cheaper and more flexible open-source billing and tracking systems. Or an open-source media server might more easily send movies to a Linux-based TV set-top box.