SAN FRANCISCO Just as embedded Linux vendors gather momentum for their David-vs.-Goliath battle against the giants of the software industry, one company in their ranks has begun questioning whether their goal of a common platform specification is being realized quickly enough, or whether it is even worthwhile anymore.
Lineo Inc. (Lindon, Utah) charged this week that little has happened since the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC) began laying plans to create a common platform specification over a year ago. Company executives expressed doubt in the organization's ability to meet its new goal of producing a specification by the end of this year.
"It's been a year and a half and not very much has happened," said Tim Bird, chief technical officer for Lineo and a former board member of the ELC. "At this point, we're skeptical that any useful progress will be made in a reasonable amount of time."
The Embedded Linux Consortium announced last April that it intended to release a specification "within a few months," but has since struggled with the creation of a legal document called an Intellectual Property Agreement (IPA), which it said was necessary before it could begin work on a common specification.
The consortium's members, which number more than 120 companies, want to formulate a standard specification because they see it as a platform for the creation of new Linux-based applications and, therefore, as a launching pad for Linux in the embedded world. By creating a unified platform, Linux-based product vendors hope to make it easier for developers of personal digital assistants, set-top boxes, telematics systems and other embedded products to have a range of technical choices. Moreover, they want to ensure that no single software company, such as Microsoft or Wind River Systems, can dominate the embedded market.
"Among the people who make products, there's a strong desire to ensure that one large company can't come in and determine their future," said Inder Singh, chairman of the ELC, and chairman and chief executive officer of LynuxWorks Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), a maker of Linux-based operating systems. "There's a lot of resistance to letting someone like Microsoft come in and take over the embedded market."
'Worst fears realized'
The ELC met here this week at the Embedded Systems Conference to unveil the Intellectual Property Agreement, calling the agreement's rollout "a watershed event." The meeting, attended by more than 150 Linux faithful, some decked in Penguin T-shirts and leather jackets with the words "born to code" on the back, was characterized by strong support for Linux in the embedded market. Many in the crowd applauded when a speaker said he had created his presentation on Open Office rather than on Microsoft Office. Attendees were heavily in favor of the creation of an embedded Linux specification. At the meeting, Singh declared the consortium would release its initial specification by the end of this year.
Still, Lineo, which is one of the four main makers of Linux-based embedded operating systems, said that it and other members of the consortium were disappointed by the length of time that has already gone by without a standard specification being released. "A year ago, some of us were concerned that the process would take too long," Bird said. "And our worst fears have been realized."
Ironically, the embedded Linux movement, which prides itself on its open-source approach to software development, has been slowed in its standardization efforts by squabbles over intellectual-property ownership, Bird said. The ELC has taken approximately a year to create the IPA, mainly because its board members disagreed over issues of openness. "To take a whole year for the IPA doesn't bode well for the creation of an entire specification," he said.
The IPA, which addresses such issues as licensing, patent and trademark infringement, and disclosure agreements, apparently became a bone of contention for some of the board members who disagreed over its structure. Some reportedly wanted to move quickly and not worry about the consortium's ownership issues, while others wanted to ensure that the ELC essentially owned the specification, and no other organization could build on it.
Bird contends that the organization may be missing a critical window of opportunity because it is falling victim to the indecision and inertia that often befall consortia. "This is why de facto standards generally win out," he said.
ELC members responded that the IPA was complex and that its precise deployment was critical to the future of embedded Linux, especially because Linux is covered by the General Public License (GPL), which obligates users to divulge large chunks of altered source code to anyone who asks for it. Competitors, particularly Wind River Systems Inc. (Alameda, Calif.), have struck hard at the GPL issue, arguing that developers will not want to reveal their source code.
ELC directors admitted that some members are disappointed in the time it took to create the IPA, but said that most are satisfied they are going in the right direction. "There are some members who feel we haven't moved fast enough," said Murray Shohat, executive director of the ELC. "But there are also members who feel we should move more slowly."
Given the GPL situation, Shohat said that most members thought a strong IPA was worth the wait. "Even the ones with their feet on the accelerator pedal" were in favor of strong protection, he said.
At the ESC meeting, speakers made a strong case for the unified platform specification, saying it was needed to maintain the rapid growth of Linux in the embedded marketplace. They pointed to statistics showing that Linux use is soaring in embedded applications, including a study done by the Evans Data Corp. (Santa Cruz, Calif.). The study predicted that embedded Linux would grow 140 percent in 2002, placing it first among embedded operating systems, ahead of Wind River's VxWorks and Microsoft's Windows CE.Net. They also cited a subscriber survey done by Embedded Systems Programming magazine that showed embedded Linux jumping from essentially no market in 1999 to 38 percent of the market in 2000, as well as a study by Venture Development Corp. that predicted embedded Linux would grow 61 percent annually until 2005.
Speakers said that semiconductor makers and electronics manufacturers have joined the ELC, and many now routinely invest in Linux-based software companies. Indeed, MontaVista Software Inc. (Sunnyvale, Calif.), a maker of Linux-based operating systems, announced Tuesday (March 12) that it had received a major investment from Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., through its subsidiary, Panasonic Digital Concepts Center. That announcement followed on the heels of a similar one a month ago from MontaVista that it had secured $28 million in funding from IBM, Sony, Intel and U.S. Venture Partners.
"No embedded technology has ramped up as fast as Linux," noted Rick Lehrbaum of LinuxDevices.com, who served as a keynote speaker at last week's meeting. "It has gone from being a cool idea to a disruptive technology in just two years."
Singh of the ELC said that he believes the embedded Linux community can quickly generate a unifying platform specification now by using Unix's Posix standards as a model. "We don't feel a need to reinvent the wheel," he said.
Lineo executives agree that Linux has explosive potential, but they argue that the Linux movement must continue to move, rather than stagnate while it mulls over agreements and specifications. Bird of Lineo contends that the unified specification was born as part of a reaction to "misinformation" distributed by competitors two years ago, which held that the Linux market was in danger of fragmenting. Such fragmentation supposedly would have resulted in a number of Linux-based companies taking their technology in separate directions, with no unifying, underlying force.
"There was a lot of talk a year and a half ago about Linux fragmenting," Bird said. "And the truth was that it wasn't an issue. There has always been good interoperability [among Linux-based products]. This whole undertaking has been a reaction to the FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] that people were spreading about embedded Linux."
Lineo remains a member in the ELC, Bird said, although he is no longer on the organization's board of directors. "We're not breaking ranks, but we are laying low for now," he said.
In the meantime, Lineo is already working to develop application programming interfaces with a number of vendors. The company is teaming with Trolltech AS to develop a graphical user interface for handheld devices and has chosen other partners for other APIs.
"If we didn't do this now, we'd still be waiting for the development of a standard," Bird said. "And we don't know how long that would take."