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Embedded Market Accepts Linux

Linux, the free-for-all operating system that has been a thorn in the side of Microsoft's plans for controlling the desktop and server markets, is winning acceptance in the embedded applications market. And in Asia, its presence is growing among developers of a variety of applications.

On a worldwide basis, embedded Linux usage will more than double this year, growing by more than 140%, according to a research report by Evans Data, which also predicts that Linux will become the most popular operating system for embedded development by next year.

Among the Linux contenders in the Asia market is MontaVista Software Inc, of Sunnyvale California. MontaVista is well known for its expertise in Linux, according to Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, an analyst company in Tempe, Arizona. The embedded market as a whole is still struggling to recover momentum due to slow sales in the semiconductor industry, Strauss noted.

Manufacturers of handheld devices in Asia are rushing to commercialize Linux-embedded PDAs, according to Raymond Mak, vice president of sales in Asia for MontaVista. The company markets embedded Linux products and services to companies developing applications in handheld, wireless, consumer, networking and telematics systems. The recent decision by the government of China to standardize on Linux has boosted its appeal significantly, Mak said.

The Linux operating system has been used for years in servers and desktop computers, for which it was originally developed. IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and Oracle are among the companies that have adopted the open operating system.

Actual usage of Linux software can be difficult to track, simply because it is openly available to anyone with the patience and expertise. The monetary value of the market depends on private companies adding value to the original source code, and providing all the bells and whistles commercial customers may look for. Companies such as Red Hat became famous when their products, designed to facilitate Linux developers' work, were readily accepted by customers who wanted to break free of proprietary operating systems but were not ready to go it totally alone.

Linux's Appeal

Linux is appealing to customers who are ready to upgrade existing designs formulated in proprietary real-time operating systems (RTOS), as well as designers starting from scratch with new products to build.

According to Bill Weinberg at MontaVista Software, embedded Linux is rapidly encroaching on the application spaces once considered the exclusive domain of embedded kernels such as Wind River's VxWorks, and pSOS, which Wind River now owns, and in-house platforms. Existing pSOS users are concerned that its acquisition by Wind River means it will be gradually phased out because of the company's preference for its own software, Weinberg said. Rather than risk being stranded as their designs need upgrading, they are migrating existing designs to Linux, he said.

RTOS comes from traditionally closed, proprietary development platforms owned by individual companies, where Linux, though overseen by inventor Linus Torvald, is openly available. Therein lies Linux's advantages -- and its challenges.

MontaVista claims to have had 250 customers working on 300 embedded designs in the last two years, with "several dozen" that migrated specifically from legacy RTOS code. "Developers are leaving behind first-generation RTOSs in search of more reliable and open embedded platforms like Linux," Weinberg said. "While migration from these traditional systems does present a variety of challenges, the benefits far outweigh the investment needed to move to embedded Linux. The real risk lies in standing still while the embedded and pervasive systems development communities move forward at Internet speed."

Although transitioning applications of a proprietary RTOS to Linux has its challenges, Weinberg said that developers are making the jump. RTOS systems are constrained by 20-year-old architectural problems, he said, while Linux benefits from more robust Unix-based programming.
LinuxDevices estimates that open source, including Linux, will claim up to half of all new designs in the next two years. More conservative analysts at Venture Development Corp believe that Linux will take 47% of embedded designs by 2005.

In 2000, worldwide shipments of embedded Linux OS, software development tools, and related services reached about US$28.2 million, according to analyst Steve Balacco at Venture Development Corp. By 2005, VDC estimates that shipments will have reached US$306.6 million, in a compound annual growth rate of over 60%.

He sees telecom and datacom applications as the top market for embedded Linux sales, and notes that companies are not averse to paying for top-quality development tools to support the free operating system.

by Teri Sprackland

(May 2002 Issue, Nikkei Electronics Asia)

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