Ericsson and Red Hat collaborate on home communications

Ericsson and Red Hat have unveiled a strategic initiative to develop a broad range of technologies, products, and services for home communications. The first tangible results of the partnership will emerge when the Ericsson Cordless Screen Phone (unveiled at CeBIT, last February) begins shipping towards year end.

Ericsson and Red Hat have unveiled a strategic initiative to develop a broad range of technologies, products, and services for home communications. The first tangible results of the partnership will emerge when the Ericsson Cordless Screen Phone (unveiled at CeBIT, last February) begins shipping towards year end. The joint effort aims to exploit the emerging market opportunity for Linux-based information appliances and mobile devices. The move is part of Ericsson's broad vision of "anywhere, anytime communication" technologies and products.

What's a screen phone?

Frank McGhee, Ericsson vice president of business development, describes the Ericsson Cordless Screen Phone as "a wireless web pad with a built-in phone and Bluetooth wireless technology for in-home use" (see photo). "Basically," says McGhee, "it's a Linux platform. You can surf the web, check your email, and send voice clips." Oh yes: it makes phone calls, too.

Unlike an ordinary cordless phone, the Ericsson device communicates with its base station via Bluetooth, a short-range spread spectrum wireless technology championed by makers of cell phones, PDAs, and other portable devices. Currently, Bluetooth range is limited to approximately 10 meters, which is somewhat restrictive for a relatively expensive product that is intended to be used throughout a home. But help is on the way, according to McGhee, who says Ericsson is in the process of extending Bluetooth's range to 100 meters through increases in both transmit power and receive sensitivity.

A base station with aspirations

Although the initial screen phone base station talks to the Internet via ordinary phone lines, McGhee's reference to web surfing implies that future base models will offer high speed ("broad band") interfaces. According to McGhee, Ericsson has already announced a cable modem option, and a DSL will soon follow.

Given the expected increases in both Bluetooth range and Internet speed, on top of the newly formed strategic relationship with Linux leader Red hat, Ericsson's screen phone base station appears destined to morph into a Linux-powered home gateway, capable of providing Internet access and other shared services. While declining to be specific, McGhee acknowledges the likelihood of that occurring ("We are a big supporter of OSGI"), and also says the company is developing additional "always on, always tied to the Internet" appliance-like devices for the home.

Building a developer/user community

Ericsson apparently hopes to turn its new screen phone product into a broadly supported Information Appliance platform; one that includes a Palm OS style community of developers, users, and advocates. To this end, the software technologies being developed -- including development tools -- will be released under an open source license, enabling third party developers to freely design, port, and debug applications for the device.

In hopes of fostering just such a community, Red Hat plans to create a dedicated area of redhat.com where tools and application software for the Ericsson Cordless Screen Phone are freely available. "We're going to be building a community website, because it will be possible for people to program these devices," says Kim Knuttila, Red Hat Vice President and General Manager of Client Services. "If you think of the sort of community that surrounds . . . Palm OS, . . . that model will be employed here as well -- tools, tips, techniques, newsgroups, help, chat, etc."

With open software and open standards as its basis, is it possible that a growing community of developers and users will transform the Ericsson screen phone into an open, multi-vendor Internet Appliance platform -- a sort of "Palm Pilot" of web pads? "Yes, that's quite possible," says Red Hat's Knuttila, "that's an interesting way to frame it."

Ericsson's McGhee concurs. "We see the power of the Linux development community, with Red Hat helping to provide the portal. Users will know they're coming to a place where they can get software that runs on their device."

Penguins, penguins, all around . . .

According to Knutilla, Ericsson is developing "a range of products aiming to go on a home network. They plan to provide a comprehensive range of Post-PC products and services designed specifically for home communications, and see the value in bringing to market innovative products and services that are increasingly based on open platforms and open standards. Red Hat is working in partnership with Ericsson to help them do this."

Ericsson's McGhee adds, "there will be a lot of appliances [in the home] that have IP addresses. We see all that coming together in the base station." From the way the Ericsson / Red Hat relationship is developing, it looks like "that" will include a whole lot of embedded Linux!

Related stories:
Ericsson cordless phone / Internet appliance runs Linux
Ericsson puts Linux & browser on cordless screen phone
The Official Bluetooth Website
The Bluetooth on Linux homepage