Devices gain an edge with Linux

Embedded systems developers benefit from an open source OS

Linux is finding success in much smaller devices than the servers and workstations that have traditionally been its mainstays. For embedded systems developers, the advantage of Linux over proprietary OSes lies as much in its flexibility and openness as in its low cost.

The consumer electronics market has an insatiable demand for new technologies, but developers working with proprietary embedded platforms from the likes of Microsoft and Symbian must depend on a single vendor to deliver device drivers and support for the latest hardware. Their developer counterparts in the open source community, however, often begin tinkering with technology as soon as it’s released. The code they produce may be raw, but it appears quickly, which in turn allows them to produce prototypes faster, get to market sooner, and gain first-mover advantage over their competitors.

Linux also makes it easier to build complex embedded applications. Traditional RTOS (real-time operating systems) for embedded devices are single-purpose platforms designed for running one task in a single processor thread. Embedded Linux resembles its heavyweight cousin, in that it’s a general purpose OS designed to run multiple applications. This versatility helps developers to serve an increasingly sophisticated customer base that demands ever more of digital devices. What’s more, the absence of complex proprietary licensing terms frees developers to customize every level of their applications, choosing the components they want while ignoring others.

Competition among vendors is inevitably good for customers. In the embedded Linux market, top vendors such as MontaVista and Wind River compete not only against proprietary OS vendors but also against each other. In addition, some device manufacturers choose to “go it alone,” producing their own flavors of embedded Linux, independent of the OS vendors. But because Linux is open source, each variant becomes part of a broad ecosystem of developers, customers, and partner companies, all contributing to the larger whole.

This atmosphere of “competitive collaboration” leaves still other companies free to build upon the Linux base with additional tools. For example, Trolltech offers Qtopia, a complete environment for rapid development of embedded Linux applications and user interfaces. The core Qtopia technologies are available under the Gnu GPL (General Public License), giving developers the same visibility into Qtopia code as they enjoy with the Linux kernel itself. Similarly, Nokia has released its own open source application platform, Maemo, which can be found on embedded devices such as the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet.

These toolkits offer an additional advantage to developers: familiarity. Qtopia is based on Trolltech’s well-established Qt toolkit for desktop Linux systems; Maemo is based on similar technologies from the Gnome project. The result is that application developers can use their existing skills to build software for embedded Linux, unlike proprietary OSes.

These advantages add up to an ever-increasing range of devices powered by Linux. From Sharp PDAs to TiVo set-top boxes, Linksys wireless routers to Motorola mobile phones, more companies are betting on Linux as their springboard to success in the fast-paced and highly competitive device market.

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