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PDAs, Anyone? Linux Arena Almost Abounds

IBM, HP Take Linux in Hand--So Where Was Win CE?

  • February 10, 2003
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Just a couple of years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find a laptop pre-installed with Linux. no matter where you looked. At last month's LinuxWorld show, though, there were multiple displays of even smaller Linux-enabled devices.

Locations of the Linux PDAs included booths of hardware heavyhitters IBM, AMD and Sharp. IBM used LinuxWorld as a launch platform for its PowerPC 405LP PDA reference design. The new design calls for a palm-sized handheld based on IBM's PowerPC chips.

In a demo at the IBM booth, Michael McGinnis admitted that he spent lots of time at the New York show trying to drum up interest among OEMs.

IBM's hardware design comes in two software flavors. One design is "PDA-centric," with applications that run directly on the device. The other one uses Web services for accessing apps running on remote servers. Under the Web services approach, IBM will essentially carve up server-based content into chunks small enough for handheld viewing.

"A lot of enterprises haven't been using PDAs. A big reason for this is that PDAs haven't been able to access enterprise apps like sales automation, ERP and CRM," maintained McGinnis, who is program director for strategic marketing at IBM Microelectronics.

Some other vendors are hawking PDAs that are adaptable to Linux as well as to other OS. IBM, however, has cast its eyes on Linux only, according to McGinnis. "Open source is attractive to IBM, as well as compelling to customers."

The handheld prototype runs MontaVista Linux, IBM WebSphere Micro Edition, and IBM Everyplace Mobile Enterprise Application Kit. Just for starters, its features include an Li-Ion battery; stereo speakers; audio in/audio out; embedded ViaVoice speech recogntion; a Tivoli Device Management Agent; a TCPA security chip; an 8- or 16-bit PCMCIA slot; USB 1.1 host; 10/100 Ethernet, and a serial port, for example.

During a press Q&A at LinuxWorld, Phil Pompa, AMD's VP of marketing for PCS, contended that Linux is especially well suited to advanced power management.

IBM's McGinnis thinks differently. "Linux as an OS isn't well suited to advanced power management--unless you make it that way," he argued. "You can tweak it, though, and that's what IBM's done."

McGinnis also touted the "high performance" MPEG-4 video streaming technologies integrated into IBM's design. "We have benchmarks showing our performance to be twice as good than the Sharp Taurus running Linux, and four times better than Windows CE. Everyone, though, can see this for themselves."

At a Microsoft booth tucked into LinuxWorld's back corner, a staffer in the Embedded Systems Group claimed that Microsoft hadn't brought any WinCE devices along to the show.

"Windows Embedded did again have a presence in the Microsoft booth," a Microsoft spokesperson acknowledged later. "But our heaviest focus this year was on the developer community and engaging in dialog."

MS put most of its energies into chatting up developers about GotDotNet--its developers' Web site--and the ASP.NET Web Matrix project, according to the spokesperson.

"Investment in the developer community is really Microsoft's heritage, and in going back to our roots, we felt that LinuxWorld attendees would be interested in engaging with Microsoft developers and learning more about some of Microsoft's developer offerings. So, we brought the wildly successful ASP.NET Web Matrix project back (since it went live on June 17, 2002, there have been more than 300,000 downloads), as well as adding GotDotNet to the booth," he said.

Microsoft's .NET framework, though, covers everything from servers to "compact devices." An article now posted on GotDotNet carries the headline, "Security Features in Windows CE. NET." MS's ASP.NET has an extension known as the Microsoft Mobile Internet Toolkit (MMIT).

MS has by now signed more than 30 OEM partners for Pocket PC. Dell, Samsung, Siemens and Viewsonic are new over the past year. They are also promoting Microsoft's new Smartphone software for smaller PDAs, "which is shipping today in Europe on the Orange SPV device and will soon be available in the US."

Meanwhile back at LinuxWorld, PDA software integrator Metrowerks displayed another handheld supporting Linux in the AMD booth at the front of the hall. Metrowerks produced the software stack used in the Linux-enabled Sharp Zaurus, now on the market for about a year, according to Berardino Baratta, Metrowerks' CTO and VP of core technology and SSG.

Aside from Linux, Metrowerks supports several other OS on PDAs, including Palm, Symbian, and Playstation, for instance. "We don't do any (Windows CE) PocketPCs, though," Baratta added.

Beyond Sharp, Meterowerks' other hardware customers on the Linux side include Vereel and India-based Infomart. Vereel is using video streaming, too.

Metrowerks is also at work on a couple of still unannounced projects for Linux-based tablet PCs. One customer is collaborating with the Malaysian government on tablets that will be distributed to all of that nation's schoolchildren.

"We're taking out our game applications for that implementation. We're also adding some custom apps for digital ink," Baratta said.

Linux PDAs cropped up in other parts of LinuxWorld, too. Applied Data Systems (ADS) showed its Bitsy-X, linked through the USB port to a small NTSC video camera. Bitsy is a tablet-sized design for vertical market apps.

Linux-enabled HP devices were all over the place, too. In the .org Pavilion, LPI-Japan displayed a Jornada running Linux rather than WinCE. The multivendor Enterprise Solutions Center (ESC) demo in the middle of the show floor featured an HP iPAQ, alongside a lot of very much larger systems.

Did Microsoft brass feel threatened by these bursts of Linux PDA activity? Not officially, at least. "Choice and competition are good, and we feel confident competing with anyone on the merits of our software," according to a Microsoft spokesperson.

"Linux devices may be attractive for the narrow market of Linux enthusiasts, but overall customers want device software that is familiar and easy to use," he insisted. "To our knowledge, today's Linux-based devices have not been well received by the broad market. PocketPC and Smartphone offer choice and ease of use without giving up on performance (price, power, form factor, wireless, apps.)"

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