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Asia leads in Linux-based connectivity

Posted: 01 Apr 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:linux? nec? dram? html? network?

In all areas of pervasive computing, on a global scale, embedded Linux competes on an equal footing with Microsoft and other proprietary platforms. In the United States, Europe and Latin America, embedded Linux can boast of wins in networking, telecom infrastructure, industrial control, instrumentation and consumer electronics. However, it is in key Asian marketplaces that Linux is taking off as the preferred platform for intelligent consumer devices, handheld applications and next-generation telephony.

Recently, Asian suppliers in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan introduced over a dozen Linux-powered handhelds, including PDAs like the G.mate Yopi and the Sharp Zaurus, smart phones like SK Telecom's WebPhone, web pads from LG and FIC, as well as a walking, talking, wired robot from Fujitsu.

Driving the adoption of embedded Linux in consumer electronics is a technology trend that offers Asian developers unique advantages and challenges in a global marketplace.

Hardware favors

Starting approximately five years ago, global semiconductor vendors, NEC, Toshiba and Hitachi in particular, began upgrading their embedded CPU families from prior 8-bit/16-bit focus to embrace the 32-bit and 64-bit cores needed to run WindowsCE. These faster devices, with wider buses and integrated memory management, are ideal for running other OSs, especially Linux.

Accompanying availability of these fast, dense CPUs has been the upsurge in non-volatile (Flash) storage capacity and the simultaneous drive downward in DRAM prices, required to boot and to run typically larger, web-enabled applications. Also, the most expensive component in web-enabled clients, the LCD display, has been falling in price and gaining in capacity and performance for the last decade, at last enabling workstation-style graphics (e.g., X11-based) on small form-factor. Together, these trends not only favor the adoption of a "real" OS like Linux for web gadgets, they also eliminate the old crowd of embedded platforms from consideration.

Embedded challenges

To date, acceptance of web-enabled handheld devices has been hampered by the disparity between the browsing experience offered by desktop machines and "poor man's" web offered by WAP and other first-generation interfaces. To understand the challenge faced in embedding the web experience, let us break down the worldwide web content "gush" into its constituent streams:

First, there is "mere" HTML and accompanying graphical content. While any of the two-dozen or so desktop browsers available for Windows, MacOS, Linux, etc. can display any and all versions of HTML and CSS, JavaScript and other basic augments, most embedded browsing engines render these basic content streams poorly or in non-intuitive ways, forcing the user to adapt to a second-class browsing experience.

Second, the unfiltered Web abounds with Java-based content. While many handheld devices are Java-enabled today, the Java implementations found on those appliances are non-standard and scaled down.

Third, the richest currents of web content, involving streaming media and animation, are dependent upon browser plug-inse.g., MacroMedia Flash or Real Audio. To fully appreciate the breadth of available content, a single device user may require dozens of different plug-ins.

Fourth and last, the Asian marketplace puts a burden on web-enabled devices, a burden that is absent elsewherethe need to override for internationalization/localization throughout the software stack and ecosystem.

On the desktop, in particular the "Wintel" desktop, all such content is "native" since web content emanates from desktop/server machines and software, it is expected to render there. Thus, when an embedded device closely resembles a desktop machine in its hardware and software configurationIA-32 CPU and a Windows or x86 Linux OSit has the greatest chance of providing a palatable web experience to users.

How then, can we reconcile OS/browser/Java/language/plug-in dependencies favoring IA-32 designs with the preponderance of web-enabled devices for architectures like MIPS, SH, ARM and StrongARM?

Agile browser demands

The key to solving these interdependencies is the browser. On the Wintel desktop, Internet Explorer reigns supreme and accordingly, Microsoft is attempting to carry that capability set into versions for WindowsCE/PocketPC/Stinger. The Linux desktop browser situation is rather more fragmented, with contention among stock Netscape, its sister Mozilla, Konqueror, Opera and other clients. Mozilla, Konqueror and Opera are enjoying success in a variety of embedded venues and are joined by several embedded-only clients, like Netfront and Java-based browsers.

The last area that favors Asia and Linux is the commonality of connectivity standards. Despite Asia's current economic malaise, Asian countries still lead with innovation in other overlapping wireless infrastructure, including low-cost 802.11 family protocols. Low-cost embedded Linux and its rich and constantly evolving ecosystem of peer-to-peer protocols, offers the price/performance leadership to accompany the time-to-volume pressures that drive Asian manufacturing.

? Bill Weinberg

Director of Strategy

MontaVista Software Inc.

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