Linux everywhere: The Penguin goes mobile

Linux could soon become a major challenger in handheld computers and other portable gadgets

Today, most of the attention in the handheld world is trained on the battle between Palm -- which makes the ubiquitous organiser of the same name -- and Microsoft, whose Windows CE operating system and Pocket PC device so far have been unsuccessful in unseating Palm. Another handheld device maker attracting notice is Handspring, a licensee of Palm's OS that was started by Palm's co-founders. Handspring's stellar initial public offering last week raised $200 million and gave the company a market value of $3.4bn (£2.23bn) after its first day of trading.

But Linux might well be a dark horse ready to race against Palm, Micro soft and others for mobile devices of all stripes. The open source OS has quietly won over some very big backers in the handheld arena, including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Intel. These and other companies are actively developing prototypes of devices running lightweight versions of Linux. By year's end, dozens of manufacturers will have Linux-based handheld computers, Web appliances and other gadgets on the market, industry executives predicted.

"We're seeing a ton of development on Linux," said Lynn Comp, product marketing engineer at Intel's handheld computing division, which markets the company's Strong ARM microprocessors. "It's going to start showing up a great deal in products over the next 12 to 24 months."

Until recently, those leading the embedded Linux charge have been a loose assemblage of smaller software tools vendors such as Lineo and MontaVista Software, as well as individual developers and hobbyists hacking Linux into various devices.

Now computer industry giants are joining the portable Linux parade. Among them is Compaq, one of Microsoft's biggest hardware partners for Windows CE handhelds. As part of its new Open Handheld Program, Compaq this month released a version of Linux for its iPAQ handheld PC intended for researchers. In addition, Compaq is sponsoring Handhelds.org, a site dedicated to open source development of software for handheld computers.

Though the Linux iPAQ code is aimed at technical developers and not commercially available, Compaq's development marks a significant new direction for Linux on handhelds, said Jill House, director of smart handheld research at International Data Corporation. "This is the first major mobile move that Linux has made," she said. "It shows strong growth of interest in the personal companion category as a whole."

The Compaq Linux handheld project, which Intel also supports through its StrongARM processor group, emerged from the computer maker's corporate research facility in Palo Alto, California, where roughly 15 people work on the Open Handheld Program. Dick Greeley, who heads the handheld research program, said Compaq decided to port Linux to the iPAQ to tap the device's powerful processor, high-resolution screen and expansion capabilities.

"We expect people to start to create really novel uses for this," Greeley said.

Meanwhile, IBM, which has strongly committed to Linux on many of its server systems, has cooked up some prototypes of Linux handhelds in its research labs. The company is also working with embedded Linux tools companies to write middleware applications that support mobile Linux applications.

Why is Linux a fit for small devices? Its supporters say the benefits of open source software on PC servers and desktops carry over into the mobile device world: Linux is a robust OS that has a developer community of thousands constantly improving it.

Then there's the issue of royalties. According to industry executives, Microsoft charges $10 to $15 for each Windows CE licence, while market-leading Palm charges roughly $20 per unit. For companies expecting to produce millions of devices, those fees tally up fast. "Handhelds are a margin-driven market," IDC's House said.

The main target of the Linux handheld movement -- just as with Linux for PCs -- is Microsoft. "There's an element of Microsoft-bashing here," said Nathan Williams, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who is porting the open source NetBSD OS to Compaq's iPAQ handheld computer. "The hand held devices that are targeted [by the Linux community] are the ones that natively run Windows CE, not Palm OS or [Symbian's] EPOC."

But it's not necessarily all about people who hate Microsoft. Linux developers said the hardware of Windows CE devices is more suitable for Linux, compared to the relatively lower processing power of current Palm devices. "People are making business decisions about Linux," said Jon Prial, director of marketing at IBM's Pervasive Computing division. "It's a minority of the people who are doing this out of anti-Microsoft sentiment."

Nevertheless, Microsoft is already losing mind share to Linux among embedded device makers, according to Bill Weinberg, director of marketing at Monta Vista: "The same people today who are shipping with Windows CE are putting together Linux equivalents to either augment or supplant their CE offerings."

Another Windows CE partner dipping into the Linux stream is HP. The company is developing multifunction Linux-based devices for the consumer market, which HP expects to release in 2001, said Boris Elisman, worldwide marketing manager at HP's information appliances and services division. HP plans to continue to use Microsoft's Pocket PC for its Jornada handhelds, aimed at business users. But Elisman said that in order to produce a sub-$500 multimedia device for consumers, the company had to turn to Linux, because neither Palm's nor Microsoft's OSes could meet HP's system and pricing needs.

"What we see with Linux is a nice combination of an environment that allows the deployment of rich applications, like video and imaging, with a lower price point on the hardware," Elisman said. "If Microsoft's not willing to address the consumer space, we're willing the look at alternatives."

To be sure, Linux, at this point, is nonexistent in commercially available handheld devices. Palm had a commanding 88.3 percent share of handheld OSes in units shipped in 1999, followed by Windows CE with 9.9 percent, according to IDC.

What's more, grooming Linux for handheld environments will require further de velopment work. Embedded Linux vendors can fit the OS in about 500 kilobytes of memory, but it's still a challenge to build a user interface and integrate applications such as a Web browser, MontaVista's Weinberg said.

"All companies, like Microsoft, conduct research in different areas. [Linux on a handheld] is not a threat right now," a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

Executives at Palm were not available to comment

The ultimate market impact of squeezing Linux into handhelds can't be gauged until real products arrive, executives and analysts agreed. But one thing seems certain, analysts say: There will be room for Linux, because a single OS player will not be able to dominate the market for the handheld OS the way Microsoft cornered the PC.

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