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Embedded Linux heading toward mainstream

Posted: 01 Jan 2004 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded linux? operating system? pvr? open source?

Raymond Mak is VP for Asia-Pacific, MontaVista Software

The last 18 months have seen embedded Linux transition from early-adoption status across Asian marketplaces to mainstream standing. Intelligent device manufacturers in Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea have passed through evaluation and prototype stages. Today, dozens of Linux-based consumer and communications products are shipping in volume. Impressed by the ease and low cost of developing consumer and networking products, companies are now standardizing on embedded Linux as a "strategic platform" for current and future product development.

Many good examples of embedded Linux adoption and deployment come from Global 500 brands in Asia. Last year, in the digital video space, Sony shipped the Cocoon digital personal video recorder (PVR), NEC released the AX-10 PVR and Panasonic deployed a Linux-based broadband TV tuner. In home multimedia and storage, D-Link brought its Central Home Drive to market, as did Sharp with its Home Server. In the hot handset arena, Motorola China shipped the A760 Linux-based 3G handset while NEC announced plans to build whole families of phones running on Linux starting this year. Similarly, Samsung announced a global commitment to Linux and plans to build its handset product with Linux in 2004.

Bill Weinberg is director for strategic marketing, MontaVista Software

Asian business interests and governments are keenly aware of the strategic value of Linux and open source. On the commercial side, the founding and promotion of organizations like Consumer Electronics Linux Forum and Embedded Linux Japan show how the strategic value of Linux cuts across corporate and national boundaries. Moreover, the unprecedented statements by government spokesmen in Japan and China illustrate the depth of commitment in the region to GNU/Linux.

Several factors have contributed to Linux success in the Asian technology market: the robustness and maturity of the embedded Linux platform, enhanced control over technology road maps from open source access, the opportunity to consolidate diverse technology investments as well as low development and deployment costs.

Asian OEMs and ODMs are often drawn first to the lower development and deployment costs enjoyed by Linux-based designs. Free access to source code and inexpensive off-the-shelf generic distributions combined with low engineering cost bases in Asia motivate many device manufacturers to "roll-their-own" embedded Linux before considering the entire techno-economic picture. However, engineering talent, even if significantly cheaper by several orders of magnitude, won't get a project to market faster - professional engineering managers need to weigh the temptation of "free software" against the lessons of Brook's Law and the mythical man-month.

Even with qualified engineers, embedded Linux expertise is by no means ubiquitous in Asian markets. Compounding this scarcity is a tidal wave of migration from legacy RTOS applications built on VxWorks, pSOS, Nucleus and iTRON that has overwhelmed existing talent pools. To keep afloat, resource-conscious Asian device manufacturers are eschewing roll-your-own Linux in favor of commercial off-the-shelf embedded offerings. By leveraging commercial Linux platforms and solutions, device OEMs benefit twice. First, by not needing to acquire, aggregate, integrate, build, QA, deploy and maintain more than 30 million lines of Linux code. Second, by applying freed-up resources to 100 percent value-added engineering tasks that differentiate their products in the marketplace.

The concept of "strategic platform" complements cost reduction from both use of Linux and leveraging commercial distributions. Most device manufacturers, for a given product line, build and maintain at least three distinct products: a low-end mass-market version (e.g., so-called "throw-away" cellphones); a mid-priced value product (e.g., basic feature phones with PDA, IM and other core features); and high-end performance offerings (e.g., smart phones with cameras, Internet connectivity and multimedia). Whether for phones, digital cameras, PVRs or any other intelligent product family, OEMs have typically borne a triple investment, with each product tier having its own design teams, technologies and requirements for OS, tools, training, support and other cost items. By consolidating their efforts around a single strategic platform based on Linux, they multiply base cost savings even further.

This "killer combination" of cost savings and leveraged technology will foster continuing adoption of Linux for intelligent devices and infrastructure projects in Asia. The next 12 months hold the promise of chipsets, SoCs and FPGAs with integrated MMUs replacing simpler MCUs. This is to leverage Linux memory-managed, multiprocess-architecture SoCs for handsets with "exposed" programmable radio interfaces, power management and multimedia co-processors, and allow unified multi-product hardware platform with Linux as the applications and control OS.

Solution stacks built on embedded Linux are readily available, both for vertical applications like home gateways and wireless access, as well as standard integration of advanced peripheral support like USB 2.0, FireWire and MPEG codecs, across the gamut of embedded CPU architectures.

Greater adoption of Linux is expected in both enterprise and embedded apps as the next-generation 2.6 Linux kernel becomes available in commercial distributions in the second half of 2004. Asian technology companies are expecting great things from Linux this year - and we in the Linux community intend to deliver them.

- Raymond Mak

Vice President, Asia-Pacific

Bill Weinberg

Director, Strategic Marketing

MontaVista Software

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