LAS VEGAS A multicompany effort to spin an advanced version of Linux for digital consumer products may be as much an indictment of consumer companies' traditional preference for proprietary operating systems as it is a vote of confidence for Linux.
The initiative, begun by Sony Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., has rapidly amassed support. Sony COO Kunitake Ando said that Samsung, Philips and LG Electronics have signed on to the effort, which plans to release its results this spring. Other supporters include Hitachi, IBM, NEC Electronics and Sharp. Toshiba Corp. remains a holdout.
At the same time, consumer industry zeal is waning for such existing initiatives as HAVi and the Java TV API, sources said.
The about-face on Linux underscores the failure of proprietary OS strategies for consumer electronics. Sony and Matsushita executives separately told EE Times at the Consumer Electronics show here that they will no longer invest in their homegrown OSes (Sony's Aperios and Matsushita's Pie). "We just can't keep on developing different software for every new product," said Paul Liao, chief technology officer at Matsushita Electric Corp. of America.
In the last few years, major CE companies such as Sony and Matsushita have devoted a substantial amount of their software-engineering resources to the internal development of their own versions of Linux. The next step is converging their efforts to "define in an embedded Linux OS what functions are necessary to operate consumer equipment," said Liao. Just as Linux is being eyed for consumer electronics, the open-source OS is also making headway in computing.
Managers also said that industrywide initiatives such as HAVi and the Java TV API, once pursued eagerly by consumer electronics companies, have lost their luster. Support and development activities for such alliances are dwindling, and those who led them are now back-pedaling. At the same time, there appears to be no stampede toward Microsoft Corp.'s Windows as the operating system of choice in the living room.
Many in the consumer industry believe a standard open platform is critical to their survival in the digital domain. "It opens up reuse options for application-layer-level software, and it helps to ensure interoperability among different brand name devices," said Leon Husson, executive vice president of the consumer business at Philips Semiconductors. "If Sony's DVD player only works with a Sony TV, there will be a high resistance from consumers to embrace the new generation of digital consumer products."
There is no assurance, however, that the CE community can pull off an industry-wide push toward Linux this time around. Calling the attempt "a step in the right direction for major consumer electronics engineering," Husson acknowledged that this would be a slow, ongoing process.
Earlier attempts to develop interoperability solutions for digital home appliances from multiple vendors have fallen apart with numbing regularity. But industry watchers believe the time may finally be right for a fresh approach based on an open-source standard. "You can't be religious about this," said Matsushita's Liao. "If there is a scheme that works out better, we should try it."
Engineers at major CE companies recognize that a patchwork of new protocol stacks and application programming interfaces is hardly an adequate answer to the thorny interoperability issue for embedded systems. More important, they now believe that porting all those software stacks to many types of real-time operating systems (RTOSes) running on different CPUs is too arduous a task for any individual manufacturer. To complicate things further, in many cases, a single consumer electronics company often internally uses not one but several embedded-operating systems for a variety of product lines.
"As a [consumer] system becomes more complex, functions are converging and the boundaries of existing boxes are blurring," observed Husson of Philips Semiconductors. Such growing complexity in system design and engineering leaves the industry with no choice but to select an RTOS capable of offering "an open platform," he said.
In theory, CE companies could have opted for a closed architecture such as Windows. "The big benefit of going along with such an absolute-standard platform is that because everybody goes in the same direction, the innovation speed is phenomenal and that's fantastic," said Husson.
In contrast, in the digital consumer domain, "there has been no ecosystem where thousands of software engineers can develop applications, and there has been no open platform where CE companies can share non-discriminatory IP [intellectual property]," he added.
Yet manufacturers have long bridled at the idea of paying "a disproportionate amount of money" in royalties for an operating system that will be used in a low-margin consumer product, Philips' Husson explained. Furthermore, Japanese CE manufacturers in particular have always nurtured the dream an almost romantic one of innovating a consumer electronics OS of their own, in order to dominate the living room and dictate the development of next-generation digital consumer electronics.
Sony's Ando acknowledged that Sony, together with Matsushita and Toshiba, had established "a CE consortium" to further develop Aperios, Sony's once highly regarded distributed operating system. But their collaboration fell apart in the face of an Internet-driven networked environment and the advent of operating systems such as Microsoft's .Net initiative.
Philips, for its part, had hitched its wagon to Wind River Systems' VxWorks for its Nexperia platform, which targets digital video applications. For Philips, going along with Linux means eventually ditching that RTOS at some point. But in fact, no single CE company has succeeded in using a single RTOS across the board within the same organization.
Next hurdle: security
Consumer companies have "chipped away" at OS coherence "for a long time," said Husson, "but where things get tricky is to agree on which functions are base functions, where everyone can share universal IP, such as teletext," and which are set aside for use as product differentiators. "We need to standardize things at the right level," he said.
Linux, meanwhile, presents a few challenges, with security foremost among them. "The problem with open-source [software] is security," said Liao. Because the operating system is based on the open source, anyone in theory can get into the system. The issue is how "to not expose certain functions" to the open-source community to protect a CE device from hackers, while keeping the OS open enough for software developers to invent new applications.
Beyond that, success or failure of the development of Linux-based CE devices may well depend on the determination level of the backers. Previous attempts to promote industrywide technologies like HAVi it stands for Home Audio Video Interoperability have failed, largely because many corporate executives perceived other options open to them. More important, in a CE industry culture where "everything is vertically integrated and we did absolutely everything on our own," Husson said, to give up even a tiny portion of that control could be "scary" to many engineers and their bosses. "It takes a generational change," he added, to foment such a revolution.