San Jose, Calif. Linux is fast gaining momentum in consumer electronics, despite a culture clash between CE and open-source engineers and a laundry list of unresolved technical issues that are weighing down the pace of progress.
Both the gains and the struggles were evident at two-day CE Linux Forum (CELF) meeting of about 100 engineers here last week. One open-source developer presented a 363-kbyte Linux kernel, and NEC and Panasonic are spearheading an effort that promises to deliver a Linux application programming interface for cell phones by March.
Linux offers CE vendors the opportunity to lower software royalty and maintenance costs and to speed development time. But the problems especially the cultural ones are painfully clear. Freewheeling open-source developers say relatively conservative corporate CE engineers are not supplying the code and devices the open-source community wants to see. CE engineers say they are wrestling with complex legal issues and tight product schedules that have prevented them from bringing their code to a community they charge is still too PC-centric.
"Right now, we are in the process of developing our open-source strategy," said Hiroo Suyama, manager of strategic planning for a new 400-engineer systems-software group that NEC Electronics launched in November. "Linux is a top priority, because NEC Mobile Phones is a big customer, and they have decided to use Linux."
So has Motorola's cell phone group, which has three Linux-based handsets on the China market and more in the pipeline. "Linux and Java are our future," said Scott Preece, a lead software architect for Motorola's cell phone group and chairman of CELF's mobile-phone working group. "Motorola has lots of work on Linux in China and the U.S. that will show up in future products."
Pushing the edge in real-time Linux, a Texas Instruments Inc. design team in Nice, France, is working on a handset that will use Linux on a single 200-MHz ARM CPU that will act both as communications and applications processor. "We're experimenting with that, too. It's definitely something we want to do down the road," said Preece of Motorola.
Sony Corp. is now shipping as many as 10 products, including set-top boxes, digital TVs and broadcast gear, based on Linux, said Tim Bird, a senior staff engineer focused on Linux who helped to organize the conference. "We are seeing more and more design wins for Linux," said Bird.
Bowing to the trend, OS developer Palmsource Inc. joined CELF last week. In December the company announced plans to move its PDA and cell phone software onto a Linux kernel as part of a deal to acquire China Mobilesoft Ltd., a developer of Linux-based software that's used on about 30 handsets shipping in China.
Despite the Linux product rollouts, consumer electronics companies are not active players in open-source circles. "We don't see much of you," said Andrew Morton, lead Linux kernel maintainer for the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL), which helps manage changes called patches to the Linux kernel. "All the patches we see are from server developers," Morton said at a CELF panel discussion. "We don't have much presence from people in the CE field."
CELF has posted about 20 proposed Linux patches on its Web site. That's just a fraction of the enhancements that CE companies have written but so far kept proprietary.
"We are still trying to be better at releasing our work to the [Linux] Forum, let alone putting it out to the Linux community," said Bird of Sony.
Getting the design cycles of CE products in synch with the needs of the open Linux kernel has also been a struggle, said I.P. Park, a lead scientist for Panasonic in Princeton, N.J. "It's almost impossible. We don't understand how the open-source design cycle operates," he added.
Morton of ODSL said CE engineers need to take a lesson from server giants like Hewlett-Packard and IBM, which proactively add features to the next major Linux kernel release knowing their future products will benefit from them. The community can approve a patch in less than 72 hours and provide a whole new release in four months, he said.
But in the panel session, one CE engineer charged it took nine months for his patch to appear in a new Linux release. "Whether our patches are accepted or not depends on decisions of a small group of key people," said another engineer in the crowd. Features they don't care about "might not be accepted or get ignored."
"That situation shouldn't happen, and if it does, I'll address it. You need to keep pushing back," said Morton.
For their part, open-source advocates said they need to get their hands on low-cost consumer Linux devices with good documentation so they can better take part in discussions about consumer Linux.
"CE vendors are struggling with how to deal with that. They don't want to get their products hacked. But, on the other hand, there are clear benefits with getting people to work with your products," said Ruud Derwig, a systems-software manager for Philips Semiconductors. Bird of Sony said the emergence of Linux-based cell phones will eventually fill that need.
Many of the technical issues surrounding Linux (see box) come to a head in cell phones. A CELF work group formed just last year led by Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung promises to deliver a broad, C-language service API for Linux handsets as early as March. It will include support for telephony, multimedia and an application framework.
"If we can agree to use even a significant part of this, it will be a major step forward," said Motorola's Preece, who chairs the group.
The Linux Tiny kernel presented by independent developer Matt Mackall represented another advance. Mackall removed debug interfaces, optional APIs and hashing tables from the nearly 2-Mbyte desktop Linux 2.6.5 kernel while preserving support for IDE and TCP. However, a simplified allocation engine will dampen performance by an as-yet-unmeasured amount, he said. Mackall is now trying to push his changes into the mainstream kernel as options.