PARK RIDGE, Ill. Embedded Linux vendors rolled out the heavy artillery for their assault on proprietary operating systems on Wednesday (Feb. 19), unveiling a long-awaited common software platform that could change the way engineers develop products ranging from cell phones and PDAs to set-top boxes.
The common-platform standard, crafted by the 124-company Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC), is seen by vendors as the missing link needed to lure tens of thousands of embedded developers from proprietary and roll-your-own operating systems, and into the open-source camp.
"This helps embedded Linux in a big way," said Inder Singh, chairman and chief executive officer of LynuxWorks Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), a maker of Linux-based operating systems. "It ensures that software from different vendors will effectively behave as one product."
Proponents of the new standard say it could change the way engineers design everything from handheld devices to telematics systems, enabling them to use any of a variety of off-the-shelf, open-source products that would be compatible with one another. Ultimately, they hope that applications vendors will also climb on board, producing software stamped with an "ELC-compatible" trademark, signaling the product's compliance with the new standard.
Vendors and developers alike have eagerly awaited the platform standard's arrival since April 2001, when the ELC first announced its intention to create it. Many feel that a common standard will vault Linux products into tighter head-to-head competition with those from Microsoft Corp. and Wind River Systems Inc.
Many vendors are also looking for the standard to fend off a "fragmentation" phenomenon, in which varying commercial strains of Linux grow incompatible with one another, and with commonly used application software packages.
And product developers, many of them devoted followers of Linux, see a standards-based embedded Linux as enabling the dream of a universally accepted open operating system, in which source code is freely available to software engineers.
"With the standard I can write to a given set of APIs [application programming interfaces], knowing that they'll be there on the platform and that they will conform to the specification," said Mark Brown, an author of the standard and a senior technical staff member at IBM's Linux Technology Center (Austin, Texas). "It saves me a lot of development and testing time."
But makers of proprietary embedded operating systems are questioning whether the ELC is a true open-source model. Some call the new standard simply a way for Linux companies to mirror the success of proprietary business models.
"This is a commercial approach to the open-source issue," said Tom St. Dennis, president and chief executive officer of Wind River Systems (Alameda, Calif.), which has dominated the embedded OS business. "It's basically an oxymoron: 'commercial open-source' software. Real open-source is a different animal."
But no one denies that the Linux open-source concept intrigues engineers. "Almost everybody who has any kind of embedded project is toying with pilot programs that use Linux," said Kevin Dankwardt, founder and president of K Computing (Mountain View, Calif.), a training and consulting company that supports the new standard.
Engineers like Linux because it's well-known, globally accepted and royalty-free. The upstart operating system has an almost evangelical following in certain quarters, with much of the feeling derived from an equally strong dislike of dominant OS companies like Microsoft. The faithful, many decked in T-shirts emblazoned with Linux's penguin mascot, have been known to stand in block-long lines to see Linux creator Linus Torvalds speak at conferences. Many cheer when speakers at those conferences note that their presentations were not created on Microsoft products.
Still, skeptics pointed out that the appeal of embedded Linux its royalty-free nature could disappear when vendors find other ways to make engineers pay for the operating system. Linux, they say, can't flourish in the embedded market if suppliers don't find ways to make money off it.
Wednesday's announcement, however, could be the strongest sign yet that vendors are finding ways to make embedded Linux work. The ELC, which includes such corporate heavyweights as IBM, Intel, Motorola, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens and Sony, is clearly gaining momentum in its effort to bring Linux to the forefront of the embedded market. Its 42-page platform specification includes tight definitions of embedded Linux systems that developers could use to create universal embedded Linux applications.
Eventually, the standard will also involve the use of an ELC "stamp," or seal of approval, like the famous "Intel Inside" trademark, to tell potential users that a certain operating system or piece of application software complies with the standard.
The standard would also provide freedom for customers to shop and compare vendors, the ELC said. "One of the big advantages is that if you're unhappy with your current Linux vendor and you want to switch to another, you won't have to change your application," said Singh of LynuxWorks.
Developers also said they like the groundswell movement behind Linux. "People have a lot of faith in Linux because there's a large community contributing to it worldwide," said Dankwardt of K Computing. "It's improving quickly because there are a lot of talented eyes looking at it."
"Embedded development is a specialized skill," said IBM's Brown. "And there are a lot more embedded developers who know how the Linux kernel works than there are who know how any proprietary operating system works."
Convincing the undecided
But until now developer desires haven't translated into financial success for all embedded Linux companies. Lineo Inc., a maker of Linux-based OSes, struggled through a hard two years before being acquired late last year by Metrowerks, a Motorola company (Austin). Other Linux-based vendors have suffered through layoffs during the past two years.
Embedded Linux's struggles were also accentuated by a temporary stall in the effort to produce the new standard. Several engineers said publicly that the effort was moving too slowly, amid reports that ELC members were squabbling over intellectual-property issues.
"Admittedly, the ELC got off to a slow start," said Brown, "but it wasn't due so much to a lack of ideas as to legal/organizational problems. But we're past that."
Still, some analysts contend, Linux vendors have yet to find a convincing business model that works with the OS' royalty-free structure. Most are not sure a service model, under which suppliers pay to help to integrate Linux into customer products, will prove a strong foundation for large-scale growth.
Some analysts insist the technology has potential for long-term growth. A study released last year by market watcher Venture Development Corp. (Natick, Mass.) predicted that embedded Linux products would soar from $59 million yearly revenue in 2001 to $346 million in 2006. "Linux seemed to hold its own in the midst of a bad market in 2002," noted Steve Balacco, an analyst and author of the Venture Development study.
Most analysts believe that the key in the tug of war between proprietary and open-source operating systems will be the currently uncommitted, roll-your-own developers who make up almost half of the potential embedded-market customers. "As complexity of hardware and software increases, we're seeing a gradual migration toward off-the-shelf solutions, including Linux, VxWorks and others," Balacco said.
Linux proponents believe that such migration bodes well for Linux. "Linux is in the right place at the right time," said Dankwardt.