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Embedded Linux--Rising or Falling in Consumer Devices?

Taking the Question to the Vendors

  • June 27, 2006
  • By Jacqueline Emigh

Is the use of embedded Linux rising upward or dwindling downward? Some recent research tends to point in one direction, and some in the other. So to shed just a little more light on this question, why not try a different litmus test, by taking a look at some new or recently launched consumer devices slated for display at an upcoming trade show?

In an informal poll along these same lines, results indicated enthusiasm for a variety of embedded OS among vendors with products on tap for this fall's Digital Life show in New York City.

Although admittedly rather limited in industry breadth, the anecdotal evidence culled from this approach also suggests that vendors choose their embedded OS for a number of different reasons: price, performance, and the expectations of partners or customers, for instance.

Interviewed by LinuxPlanet earlier this month at a press preview for Digital Life, the consumer OEMs said they're using OS that include embedded Linux and other open source environments as well as Windows Mobile and older niche proprietary OS..

For example, one of the OEMs now gearing up for Digital Life, Pepper Computer, intends to move to Linux kernel 2.6 with Insyde Bios in the next iteration of its Pepper Pad Web player. The 2.6 kernel is "optimized" for x86-compatible devices, maintained Len Kawell, CEO, in one of the interviews with LinuxPlanet at the New York City press event.

Weighing under 2 lbs. and less than 0.9-inch thick, the tablet-shaped Pepper Pad comes with built-in infrared and UPnP capabilities for wireless remote control of PC, TV, stereo and set top boxes. Consumers can also use the PepperPad's WiFi capabilities to access the Internet and to download music, videos and photos.

In Pepper Pad 3, the company has replaced the ARM processor of Pepper Pad 2 with an X86-compatible AMD Geode processor.

Pepper Pad 3 will carry a lower pricetag than its immediate predecessor, while also bringing better video display and three times faster Web browsing performance, according to Kawell.

Other software loaded on to the device--including a Mozilla Firefox 1.5 browser and Java and XML-based application packages--is similarly non-Microsoft in flavor.

Also new in PepperPad 3 is a built-in camera. The Linux-enabled device is slated for release to consumer electronics and department stores later this summer.

Another new offering demo'd at the event, Tzero's Technologies' broadband video over wireless chipset, runs a different open source embedded operating system--known as ECOS--under its covers.

Tzero uses an embedded MIPS core in its chipset, and its reference designs supports several different external processors, including AMD and Intel. Red Hat Linux 2.6 is one of the OS supported on the external processor side.

According to Rajeev Krishamoorthy, CEO and company founder, the Tzero TZ110/TZ210 chipset is the only wireless system to meet the link reliability and packet error rate requirements designed by consumer device makers Panasonic, Philips, Sharp and Sony.

"We do not have plans to switch from ECOS, although if there is a compelling reason we could," Krishnamoorthy told LinuxPlanet "Our requirements for the OS that we run on our SOC are that it be free, (an) RTOS, and (of) a reasonable (MIPS and memory) footprint."

On the other hand, vendors in the Windows Mobile camp included Pharos, a producer of GPS-enabled PDAs, and Novint Technologies, maker of a high fidelity interactive 3D touch controller for PC gamers. . "A lot of mobile professionals are using Windows products. Companies might make different decisions (about PDA purchases) if we used another OS," according to a woman at the Pharos booth.

The Pharos Traveler GPS 525 incorporates a SC32442X 300 MHz processor; 128 MB SD ROM; 64 MB SD RAM; Bluetooth version 1.2; 802.11b wireless with 64-128-bit WEP standard encryption; an SiR-starIII GPS receiver; and an SDIO expansion slot.

Features include a 512 MB SD card with preloaded maps; voice-prompted, turn-by-turn directions; phone calls over VoIP; and wireless access to e-mail and the Internet.

But some of the other OEMs with plans in mind for Digital Life aren't using either embedded Linux or Windows Mobile, at this point. Parrot, for example, produces a number of Bluetooth-enabled consumer devices, including a sound system, driver headset, and photo viewer.

The viewer takes digital photos sent from a Bluetooth-enabled phone, camera, or computer and displays them inside a wood or leather frame in a rainbow of different colors. The embedded processor in use is an ARM 9 + 64 MB SDRAM.

The photo viewer, however, needs to be able to interoperate with multivendor mobile phones, said a company representative in the Parrot booth. And at this juncture, that means supporting and connecting to a variety of different proprietary embedded OS, according to the rep

But meanwhile, the mobile phone industry does appear to be heading in a Linux direction. In related news, a group of mobile phone makers--including Motorola, Vodafone, DoCoMo, Samsung NEC, and Panasonic--recently unveiled intentions to collaboratively build an open, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices.

Moreover, also this month, Motorola announced that it has joined the Eclipse Foundation, with plans to put together a multivendor "Tools for mobile Linux" (TmL) project within Eclipse.org.

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