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Embedded Linux and the “Mom” Test

A Trolltech employee once said he wouldn't consider Linux a success until his mother was running it. I don't think the Mom Test is necessarily a fair one, but I get his point: When Linux penetrates the average user's home or office, it will have passed a significant milestone.

Trenches Linux Inside

A Trolltech employee once said he wouldn’t consider Linux a success until his mother was running it. I don’t think the Mom Test is necessarily a fair one, but I get his point: When Linux penetrates the average user’s home or office, it will have passed a significant milestone.

While Linux is making steady advances on the desktop, it has not quite reached the point where average users can abandon their current software and switch to Linux — and this is the crux of the matter. If it’s not ready for the desktop, where can Linux be a useful alternative operating environment for the user who is not an expert?

I think the answer is simple — on embedded devices. Linux has numerous advantages that make it extremely attractive to manufacturers who wish to create devices for both the industrial and consumer markets. We’re already seeing the first wave of embedded Linux devices, ranging from PDAs and mobile phones to set-top boxes, Web pads, and even telematic devices in cars, that have the potential to achieve wide market penetration.

Six Selling Points

So why are device manufacturers using Linux? Consider the six main selling points of embedded Linux: scalability, stability, openness, choice, profitability, and engineering resources.

Scalability: The Linux kernel is extremely scalable; it fits in some of the smallest devices being produced, yet also runs on powerful servers and enormous multiprocessing mainframes. This scalability makes it extremely attractive to device manufacturers who are tired of having the tail wag the dog — those who don’t want the operating system to limit the kinds of hardware they can build. Manufacturers who are building multiple devices can benefit from using a single OS for their products.

Stability: While the average desktop user can deal with system lockups and crashes, this is much less tolerable on embedded consumer devices. Would you use a mobile phone or PDA that crashed once a day? I wouldn’t. When it comes to mission-critical systems such as medical equipment, lockups are simply not acceptable. Embedded Linux provides the stability necessary for running devices without fear of the Blue Screen of Death.

Openness: One of the key selling features of embedded Linux is, of course, its openness. With Linux, the source code is widely available so engineers can see what the OS is doing. The ability to modify the kernel freely, without having to pay extra or sign a restrictive non-disclosure agreement, makes Linux even more attractive. Embedded operating systems need to be extremely flexible to provide a wide range of functionality, yet be able to maintain the smallest memory footprint possible.

Choice: Embedded Linux is alone in the marketplace in offering device manufacturers two different strategies for installing this small but powerful operating environment. The first is to work through an established distributor of embedded Linux solutions. If a manufacturer decides it wants to use Linux in a device, it can speak with several vendors and make sure it is getting the best value for its money. If a manufacturer is not satisfied with the service it gets from a particular provider, it can switch to another Linux company at limited cost.

The second is to do it yourself. Consider a startup building a low volume, inexpensive device: it can’t afford to pay for the services provided by the embedded Linux distributions, so it has its engineers modify the kernel for its device. The cost for this, outside the salaries of the engineers, is zero. In the past, many manufacturers of these devices would create a home-grown operating system, but now they can use something that is freely available.

Profitability: Linux is free, not only in terms of “free beer,” but also in terms of “freedom.” So how can companies make money selling something that is free? Well, given the nature of the embedded industry, manufacturers are looking for complete solutions and are willing to pay for them. Embedded Linux providers offer more than just embedded Linux, they provide many tools, services, and training. The services they provide are extremely beneficial to manufacturers, especially if they are under a tight deadline. Companies will pay for value-added services and software, which is why companies working with embedded Linux can make money.

Engineering Resources: Instead of having to train new employees in proprietary operating systems, companies can hire from the enormous pool of skilled engineers who are already familiar with Linux. With the learning curve significantly reduced, employers can have more productive employees quicker. Another advantage is that some of the consumer devices being produced, such as PDAs, will only succeed if there are applications available for them. With so many applications already being produced for the Linux desktop, it is safe to assume that if there are devices available on the market, Linux developers will provide applications for these devices.

Hitting the Marketplace

Many of these arguments also apply to the Linux desktop vs. Microsoft Windows battle; however, the situation is different for embedded Linux. While it is hard to compete against a 95 percent market share, the embedded industry is not dominated by one large company. Because of this, embedded Linux can compete on technical merits. Given these advantages, the questions that present themselves are: Who is building embedded Linux devices? When will they start to hit the market?

The roster of companies building these devices right now is impressive. Ericsson, HP, IBM, LG, Nokia, Sharp, Samsung, Ericsson, and Sony, as well as leaders in many other industries, have announced products based on embedded Linux. And there are more in the pipeline.

The list of companies interested in embedded Linux is global, but Linux is achieving its greatest early successes in the Asia-Pacific region. There is a significant level of sales activity with large manufacturers there who are interested in producing Linux devices. Asia has always been a leader in producing innovative consumer electronics, and the level of interest in Linux makes me confident that this amazingly compact and powerful technology will succeed in the embedded space.

When will embedded Linux devices hit the market? Some of them are already available. But in the first half of 2002 you should see a flowering of embedded Linux devices in your local electronics retailers.

Which brings us back to the Mom Test. If Linux-based devices should launch in time for Mother’s Day, it might be bad news for the florists of the world. Which do you think your mom would like to get from you this May — flowers or an embedded Linux Internet appliance?


Haavard Nord is CEO of Trolltech AS. He can be reached at nord@trolltech.com.

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