Linux PDA: You can have it your way

Guy Kewney explains why he really, really wants a new Sharp Linux PDA.

COMMENTARY-- "Please don't write anything which will make people want to buy the new pocket Sharp PDA," implored the product manager. "We don't have enough to sell. And it's not ready."

Well, I want one.

The SL-5000D doesn't use the Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system, it uses the "free" Linux software. It's not a Pocket PC at all.

But it looks like one. And I want one.

It's not finished. For example, if you run a program, you can't close it down. It runs in the background until you load enough new software into its 32MB of flash RAM--then it unloads them. Not quite right!--but I want one.

Inside it is a perfectly ordinary StrongARM processor just like most other pocket digital assistants have. The screen is a rather nice reflective TFT--which means it works in bright sunlight. In short, it looks pretty like a cross between an iPaq pocket PC and a Palm Pilot. I want one.

Sharp will admit it's a mess. It's a market research project, not a product. But I want one.

The point is, you can have anything you want on a Linux computer. You write it yourself. All the operating system is free; all the development tools are free. You just need the skill. And what Sharp is hoping, is that enough people will be inspired by this little machine to write all the software that people really want, that it will be a success.

Why do I want one?
It's easy to explain. It's the difference between a restaurant, and a McDonalds. In McDonalds, you know what you're getting; it's what most people want. And nothing else. Microsoft produces its idea of what everybody wants, and people are, at last, buying its Pocket PC designs.

But if you want anything else, you can't have it. The local McDonalds manager can't ask his chef to do you a couple of sausages with your burger. If you want a green salad, he doesn't have a plate to put it on. If you like wine with your meal, you'll just have to whine about it to someone else.

With Linux, every bright spark with a good idea can produce it; and Sharp's little Linux block will run it. Then if it turns out to be popular, it can be extended; a new feature.

No, I'm not a developer; but I know a lot of people who are. That means, if one of them wants to buy a new peripheral and connect it--say, a camera, or a wireless network card, or a scanner, or a Firewire driver... well, I can have one as soon as they've written it.

There are, said the product manager, more devices out there than there are engineers in Sharp. He's quite right. Microsoft tries to write drivers for them all, and nearly succeeds some of the time. Sharp reckons they don't have to try.

The product will appear again next year. The real launch will be in April, by which time, Sharp will have found out which hardware features are popular with developers, which essential gizmos it has left out by mistake, and which useless ideas it has accidentally included for no reason.

I have only one urgent bit of advice for Sharp. It is: "Fit a Bluetooth module."

This time next year, more than half the new cellphones will have Bluetooth. Maybe 10 percent of users will ever use it; but if the phone doesn't have it, it won't get into the lists.

Right now, Sharp is convinced that people want the high-speed wireless system called WiFi. It runs at 11 megabits per second (shortly to be doubled to 22 megabits) where Bluetooth runs at most around 600 kilobits.

Sharp is right; they will sell a lot of WiFi addons, if they make one. But that's not what we want in the machine when we buy it.

Nobody is more enthusiastic about WiFi wireless, than I am. But WiFi chips cost $30--in bulk. And they use battery power in floods. There is not going to be a popular, cheap, WiFi cellphone. But there will be hardly a single popular cellphone without Bluetooth. Bluetooth chips are already below $10, and will be down to $3 within two years. And they are miserly with electric power.

You use what you have. If you have a 500kilobit link via Bluetooth, then that's what you use to connect your PDA to your phone. Unless, of course, some idiot has left out the Bluetooth link. And if they have, well, you buy a different PDA.

I still want one...