The increasingly popular Linux operating system seems to be on a
crash-course with the emerging market for wireless devices, a
convergence that Linux advocates think could dramatically improve
the process of developing software to run on handheld computers,
wireless devices - and, as IBM demonstrated last week with the
Linux-powered wristwatch - a whole range of devices that are
still the stuff of imagination.
Adoption of Linux in portable and stand-alone devices has been
decisive and rapid, with Compaq and
a host of other traditionally Windows-focused companies now
releasing Linux-based products with relatively small footprints.
The operating system's appeal comes from its highly efficient,
modular kernel, as well as the fact that its freely-available
source code can be extensively modified to support a range of
computing applications - particularly in wireless devices, where
application flexibility and platform extensibility are becoming
increasingly important in developing cutting-edge new services.
Underscoring the strength of the Linux movement into this space,
last week telecommunications giant Ericsson joined forces with Red Hat - which has long positioned
itself as the most visible figurehead of the commercial Linux
movement - to develop a range of home-focused consumer products.
Red Hat will provide the services of its worldwide professional
development team, helping Ericsson refine Linux as a development
platform for a new generation of mobile phones, handheld devices
and single-purpose appliances such as Internet terminals.
The project could have striking repercussions on the mobile
phone industry, where proprietary operating environments have long
had the walk of the roost. Working with Red Hat, however, will help
Ericsson develop a standardised set of application programming
interfaces that should simplify the process of developing
third-party applications for its phones. The inevitable similar
efforts by other vendors could facilitate interoperability between
devices, leading to a wealth of innovation as independent software
developers target the massive mobile phone market as a major new
target platform for applications.
By providing a portable code base that runs much the same code
on a mobile phone, portable computer, desktop PC, server and
mainframe, the project with Ericsson could help enable
cross-platform development in a way that the Java programming
language has failed to do, says Mark White, vice president and
general manager of Red Hat Asia-Pacific.
"By using open-source technologies, we're almost given a common
API across all these devices," White explains. "The fact that
Ericsson can work with us, to put these tool sets on top of cell
phones, starts to create some interesting opportunities for
application deployment. Java does solve some of these problems, but
how many applications are really available for it? This will be a
way to help [partners] get their applications to market quicker,
better, faster and stronger, and the benefit of working with Red
Hat is that we do all this stuff."
"We're typically working with internal development teams inside
[partner] companies, doing the stuff they can't do in the same
amount of time. We've developed a methodology for implementing
these types of embedded systems in a very regimented way, and can
typically [deliver] a six-month project down to within one or two
man-days" of its scheduled completion.
Partnering with Red Hat was a lifesaver last year for Sony,
which worked with the company to develop a Linux-based game
authoring system for developers wanting to create software for the
new PlayStation 2 platform. In that case, fast turnaround of the
Linux-based solution helped game authors get familiar with the
PlayStation 2 far earlier than would have happened if Sony had to
develop, distribute and support its own proprietary tools.
Although it's still early days to see the results of Linux's
push into the handheld and wireless space, IBM last week gave some
insight into what we can expect. A prototype Linux-based
wristwatch, developed using some highly refined manufacturing
processes that squeezed a 200KB Linux kernel and processor - along
with 8MB of RAM and 8MB of ROM - onto a tiny silicon wafer, serves
as a wearable PDA that runs for three to four days per charge and
can be synchronised with desktop PCs.
While never expected to make it out of the prototype stage,
IBM's successful shrinkage of Linux - and the hardware necessary to
run it - has tremendous implications for the type of mobile devices
that could start appearing on the market soon. Augmented with local
connectivity technologies such as Bluetooth, Linux could quickly
come into its own as a major platform for developing complex
multimedia and productivity applications that run over coming
third-generation wireless networks - which should start emerging
soon after efforts such as the Red Hat-Ericsson p artnership begin
to really bear fruit.
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