Embedded operating systems are designed to be hidden from users. So if you haven't heard of QNX Software Systems's QNX Neutrino, you're not alone.
But QNX could become almost a household name, if rumours about deals in the pipeline pan out. Neutrino may end up powering devices ranging from Palm PDAs to Cisco Systems routers at some point in the not-too-distant future.
QNX (pronounced Cue-nix, rhymes with Unix) makes the embedded microkernel operating system that powers 3Com's new Audrey Net appliance and Netpliance's iOpener. QNX also markets a "microGUI" windowing interface called Photon, which 3Com also licensed for the Audrey device.
Outside of the consumer market, the QNX Neutrino operating system powers many other systems, particularly in the industrial and medical-equipment fields. The Ontario, Canada-based company was founded 20 years ago as a real-time operating system vendor.
Other companies in the embedded OS space include Microsoft, with its Windows CE Embedded and NT Embedded products -- embedded Linux vendors, such as Lineo; and traditional real-time OS vendors, including Wind River Systems and Lynx Systems (now known as LynuxWorks).
Until five years ago, QNX was an X86 shop only. Since then, the company has ported its operating system to PowerPC and MIPS. It is working on ARM and StrongARM ports of Neutrino, and it could have a "fairly reasonable set" of its technologies ported to ARM/StrongARM within six months, officials said.
"We made our OS multiplatform to be able to grab more market share in other markets, especially in telecommunications and consumer electronics," explained Greg Bergsma, QNX vice president of North American operations. Rumours are flying that QNX has set its sights on some big targets. As part of its work for 3Com, QNX developed technology to allow Audrey to sync with Palm devices. Some industry watchers have hinted that Palm may be interested in licensing QNX Neutrino for its StrongARM-based systems once QNX completes its port.
Bergsma said talk of Palm licensing Neutrino "is not crazy", but no such deal has been made. A spokeswoman for Palm did not respond for a request to comment by publication time.
Because Neutrino is built from the ground up on standard POSIX application programming interfaces, porting non-Neutrino-based software to Neutrino is fairly straightforward, he said.
In theory, "the Palm OS could become just another layer on top of our OS," Bergsma said. "But right now, that's just pie in the sky."
Another possible win for Neutrino, this time on the router front, might be announced in early 2001, Bergsma said.
In a deal signed two years ago, Cisco chose QNX as its preferred real-time OS vendor as part of Cisco's "ongoing efforts to increase the reliability and availability of data-voice-video networks". Since then, not much seems to have materialised from the partnership.
But come next year, Bergsma said, QNX will have more to say about Cisco. He declined to provide further details. "Other telcos are interested in our technology, too," he added, but cited nondisclosure agreements as to why he could say nothing more.
A Cisco spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.
What's QNX got that has so many different kinds of companies interested?
"Our technologies have been out there for 20 years. We've gotten it so we can fit a lot of functionality in a very small footprint," said Bergsma. And unlike Linux, which requires licensers to provide source-code changes back to the community, QNX owns the rights to all of its POSIX APIs, so vendors can make changes to differentiate their products without having to go public with them.
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