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Shifting opinion shakes footing of embedded Linux

Posted: 14 May 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Lineo? embedded Linux? operating system?

The embedded Linux waters grow murkier, as analysts disagree over the future of the upstart operating system and one vendor, Lineo Inc., fights for its life.

The activity reflects a changing tide of opinion in the embedded market, where Linux was once ignored, then was cast as an emerging giant and now seems to have entered a phase of uncertainty.

The travails of Lineo, an embedded Linux operating system supplier grappling with large layoffs and financial woes, could be a nail in the coffin of embedded Linux or a mere bump on the road to eventual success, analysts said. The embattled company has cut its work force from 320 to 72 employees and has had its Houston office padlocked for failure to pay rent and electrical bills. Lineo chief executive officer Matthew Harris is cutting his annual salary to $1 and the company's other employees are taking pay cuts of 5 percent or 10 percent.

"We assumed in 1999 that the market would pay for embedded Linux the same way it pays for VxWorks. But we've learned that a model built on extracting revenue from nothing more than Linux is doomed to failure," Harris told EE Times.

The company has changed its business model and now plans to make money off Linux-based solutions and tools. It is teaming with silicon vendors that will ship its tools with their development boards.

"The Linux companies that will be successful in the future won't be Linux companies per se," Harris said. "They will be companies that offer tools and solutions that include much more than Linux. That's what we'll all have to do if we want to be successful in the embedded market."

But Lineo's struggles don't square with an apparent groundswell movement toward open-source embedded products. Market watcher Venture Development Corp. has released a study predicting explosive growth for Linux in the embedded market. The study, which draws on a Web survey of 245 embedded developers, foresees embedded Linux products and services soaring from $59 million in 2001 to $346 million in 2006. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they have used embedded Linux or plan to use it in the next three years.

The apparent conflict between the desires of developers and the struggles of companies such as Lineo raises questions about the open-source movement and its business models, analysts said. Although many product developers claim they want open-source products, they often end up balking at the cost when they move deeper into development projects.

The costs for royalty-free Linux products are typically incurred when vendors charge for support services, tools or porting of the OS to a semiconductor maker's processor, analysts said.

"Linux is supposed to be free, but in truth the development costs are very high," noted Jerry Krasner, vice president of Market Intelligence for Embedded Market Forecasters. "Executives often end up saying, 'We spent 65 percent of our R&D budget and didn't get anything.' "

Some observers believe the embedded market, unlike the server market, doesn't lend itself to a successful open-source model. "Free software has to be packaged with a product that you can sell," said Victor Yodaiken, CEO of FSMLabs Inc. "It's very difficult to do a pure, free-software model in the embedded space."

Change of heart

The threat of Linux in the embedded arena, however, has been significant even for such giants as Wind River Systems Inc. A year ago, Wind River confronted the open-source specter by acquiring Berkeley Software Design Inc., which supported the Unix-like FreeBSD open-source operating system. Wind River executives said at the time that they believed FreeBSD to be superior to Linux because, unlike Linux, FreeBSD was not covered by the General Public License. The GPL obligates users to divulge large chunks of source code to anyone who asks for it.

Wind River quickly changed its mind about the open-source product, however, and spun it back out in less than a year.

At the recent Embedded Systems Conference, Wind River chairman of the board and co-founder Jerry Fiddler told EE Times that the company no longer considers Linux to be a strong presence in the embedded market. "Linux is a phantasm," he said. "Software isn't free, and companies are beginning to realize that."

Many observers blame that free-software illusion for the struggles of companies such as Lineo. "They didn't realize that you can't have a pure, free-software play in the embedded market," said an industry engineer who asked not to be identified. "It just doesn't work."

Still, some of the electronics industry's biggest players have put their capital behind the concept of embedded Linux operating systems. In January, MontaVista Software Inc., a provider of Linux-based software and services, announced it had secured about $28 million in funding from a group that included IBM, Sony and Intel.

Analysts at Venture Development Corp. (VDC) believe that such investments are a strong sign of future success for Linux. Although some embedded developers who responded to the firm's survey said they have shied away from Linux up to now, their primary reason was not high development costs. Rather, VDC's study, "Linux's Future in the Embedded Systems Market," showed that the main reasons for not using Linux were concerns over memory footprints, GPL licensing and Linux's real-time limitations.

And the real-time shortcomings are fast being addressed, said Stephen Balacco, author of the Venture Development study. Real-time alternatives are available from such companies as FSMLabs, TimeSys Corp. and REDSonic Inc. MontaVista has also developed a "preemptible kernel patch," which Linux originator Linus Torvalds merged into version 2.5 of the Linux development kernel tree.

Workable model

Such technologies show that although Linux was not originally designed to be real-time, it can be integrated with other real-time systems or "patches" that let users employ Linux and still obtain real-time performance. FSMLabs' RTLinux system, for example, runs Linux as a task atop a real-time operating system in a dual-kernel approach, letting developers assign real-time capabilities to desired applications.

Equally important, the dual-kernel approach enables companies such as FSMLabs to collect for the sale of its real-time kernel, even while it gives away the Linux OS free. As a result, FSMLabs' approach provides a workable business model with a product that sells alongside Linux.

Balacco said that the ability to provide real-time capabilities could be critical to future acceptance of Linux, especially as more developers look for such capabilities in their next-generation products.

"We're seeing that developers are increasing their real-time requirements," Balacco said. "And as they do so, they're moving toward Linux as an operating system."

Some analysts believe, however, that even the real-time aspect of Linux won't help it in the embedded space. "Real-time Linux isn't going anywhere, because embedded developers don't trust it for mission-critical applications," said Krasner of Embedded Market Forecasters. "In those areas, they're going to stick with the systems they already know."

Ultimately, the decision to use or not to use Linux in embedded applications will reveal if there's a gap between what developers think they want and what they will really pay for, Krasner said.

"Because Linux is a giveaway product, vendors have to sell services or tools along with it," Krasner said. "And no one has yet proven that embedded developers will want to pay the cost for those services."

? Charles J. Murray

EE Times

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