In a move that promises to stir up the handheld computer market, Japanese electronics company Sharp today announced plans to introduce the first mass-market device running the free Linux operating system.
Sharp is the biggest manufacturer of handheld computers in Japan and the announcement is likely to unnerve Microsoft and Palm, which lead the market in manufacturing proprietary software platforms for handheld devices.
Hiroshi Uno, general manager of the company's mobile systems division, said in an interview that Sharp intends to take on the rest of the handheld market with a computer powered by the upstart operating system.
Sharp has seen relatively little success overseas using its own proprietary operating system Zaurus. The manufacturer said it plans to use Linux to crowbar its way into markets both in Japan and overseas and hopes to sell one million Linux-based devices by the end of March 2002.
Linux, which is created by independent programmers and distributed on the Internet for free, is growing in popularity as a compact embedded operating system for a range of different devices, despite being most successful in the past as a server OS.
Linux differs from Microsoft Pocket PC operating system and Palm's Palm OS, because the code is openly available and free to use.
IDC Research analyst Tim Mui said that for this reason, Sharp's PDA is likely to be cheaper than devices running proprietary software. But he also suggested that a lack of commercial software might make the device more suited to a niche market, such as youth users.
"One of the big things I expect to see with Linux is in the youth market with multimedia," he said. "It's difficult to get into the enterprise space where there are already a lot of successful companies."
Developers argue that making the code open to scrutiny makes for greater security, reliability and interoperability in software.
The Palm OS powers devices from Palm, Handspring and Sony and currently dominates the market with a three-quarters share, according to research company IDC. Microsoft's Pocket PC software is used on handheld devices from Compaq, Hewlett Packard and Casio.
Last week it emerged that Hewlett-Packard is considering dropping Microsoft's Pocket PC operating system in favour of Linux on its Jornada device. Compaq is also doing experimental work porting Linux to the iPaq and Mui suggested that if Sharp's PDA is a big success this could help Linux onto other handheld devices.
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