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Wireless Authority: Linux Proliferation Promising More Open Future for Wireless Apps

Aug 27, 2000, 17:03 (1 Talkback[s])

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By David Braue, Wireless Authority

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 world's first 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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