Embedded Linux: Is There a Future?

Crystal balls, tarot calls and tea leaves may help determine what lies ahead for Embedded Linux. Or, you could see what several industry experts (who have already consulted their psychic friends) have to say about the embedded landscape in the next five years. Read about cool gadgets, the current foundation for success and what challenges still remain for Embedded Linux in the coming years.

What’s the future for Embedded Linux? What will the embedded landscape look like in the next five years? Leading industry pioneers share what they see in their crystal balls.

"We see [Embedded Linux] as the dominating force in five years," predicts Jim Ready, founder and CEO of MontaVista Software, a company that offers open source software solutions for the embedded systems market. "We’re going to see a mass migration away from proprietary systems toward Linux." A 25-year veteran in embedded software, Ready projects that, by 2010, Embedded Linux will become a $4 billion industry.

Embedded Linux is only now beginning to fulfill its promise. Devices run the gamut, from the smallest PDAs to systems that power large aircraft and automated factories. Here’s a sampling:

• TiVO "personal video recorder"– Perhaps, the most well-known Embedded Linux system.

• PhatNoise PhatBox – A car audio MP3 player that won "best overall product" at the Third Annual MP3 Summit.

• IBM Linux wristwatch – Performs the functions of a wristwatch, e-mail terminal and more.

• Ericsson cordless Webpad/phone – Enables you to surf the Web, check e-mail, send voice clips and make phone calls, all from one device.

And, the flurry of activity is such that new products are coming to market almost weekly. "The gestation cycle of most new products is roughly nine to 12 months – and Embedded Linux itself has only begun to see widespread interest in the past 12 months," observes Rick Lehrbaum, Executive Editor of LinuxDevices.com. "If you do the math on those two assumptions, you’ll quickly realize that the rollout of embedded Linux-based products ought to be starting right about now – and can be expected to pick up momentum toward the end of the year."

Harbingers of Success

What are the signs that success is imminent? Here are a few:

Linux’s popularity with developers. Lehrbaum’s Web site, LinuxDevices.com, conducts "ongoing" surveys geared to developers. Two questions on the survey are particularly relevant. One question reads, "What OSes have been in your embedded systems during the last two years?" Thirty-four percent said "Linux," with proprietary platforms like DOS and Windows scoring 14.7 and 12.5 percent, respectively. The second question: "What OSes will be in your embedded systems during the coming two years?" This time, developers responded with an astounding 53.8 percent choosing "Linux," with DOS and Windows falling to the middle single digits.

Linux’s adoption by tech heavyweights. IBM recently launched a dual-purpose wristwatch/e-mail terminal with Embedded Linux. Intel builds network management and security tools powered by Linux. In fact, Lehrbaum predicts that in five years, the likes of HP, Motorola, IBM and Intel will be the major players driving the growth in the Embedded Linux market.

The creation of the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC). ELC is a nonprofit, vendor-neutral trade association whose goal is the advancement and promotion of Linux throughout the embedded markets. Its roster includes names, like IBM, HP, Red Hatand others, demonstrating the widespread interest in the further development, support and growth of embedded Linux.

Heightened awareness among the media. In addition to the media coverage by the trade and business press, a number of publications and Web sites have been created to focus exclusively on Embedded Linux.

Open Source Advantage

What makes Linux the ideal platform for embedded devices, versus proprietary systems like those from Wind River and Microsoft? Why are developers migrating in droves toward open source OSes?

The price is right. "The key issue is that Linux is open source and free," says Murry Shohat, Executive Director of the Embedded Linux Consortium. "The code is completely open. You don’t have to register. You don’t have to pay. It’s there for you to just take and use." This aspect is especially attractive in keeping cost and risk at a minimum when prototyping new products.

You don’t have to develop applications from scratch. "With Linux, because of its success in the marketplace, there is a lot of software available for it," says Dr. Inder Singh, Chairman and CEO of LynuxWorks Inc. "That means greater support for a very wide range of devices, both CPU and peripheral devices, so you don’t have to write drivers or go look for them."

That’s one of the reasons why Intel started adding Linux to some of their network products. Alan Ignatowski, Platform Marketing Manager for Intel’s Embedded Architecture Division, observes, "When I look at customers, like an ISP or ASP, they are constantly wanting to add new products to generate more revenue, and they are under intense competitive time-to-market pressure. This makes the move to open source more attractive. Instead of spending a lot of time and money developing their own operating systems, they can focus on creating value-added services that generate revenue, sooner."

Because of the time- and cost-efficiencies of open source, Lehrbaum sees tremendous growth potential for embedded Linux in what he calls the "home grown" market. "Think about it. The vast majority (70 percent to 80 percent) of the embedded market has not been sourced by an OS vendor, but rather has been stuff built by engineers within companies. And, these folks, looking at the availability of open-source Linux, are migrating there as a way to speed up their process without adding any cost or risk. So, [embedded Linux] is a natural choice for the rest of the market – the 70 percent to 80 percent that has had to grow its own."

You gain interoperability. "When you buy a proprietary operating system, such as VxWorks from Wind River, you have no interoperability, except with other VxWorks installations," says Shohat. "Linux, because of its open source nature, guarantees interoperability among devices that are built by competing companies."

You gain more choices. "Linux is the only ‘multi-vendor’ choice for embedded," says Lehrbaum. "You aren’t dependent upon a single vendor. You can get embedded Linux from 25 different companies or make it yourself from what you can find on the Net. Especially in embedded, there have never been standards. Linux, by its very nature, has set a standard."

You can depend on better performance and reliability. "Linux is a more sophisticated system, including memory management, resource management and programming model," says Ready. "It’s just down the line technically more advanced, more capable and more robust."

The open source model is conducive to accountability. "Linux should not fragment the way that UNIX did several years ago," says Singh. "One of the reasons it stays consistent is that it starts with a single kernel. And, I think there are some built-in community pressures to keep it from fragmenting too much, because the users are a community that have been connected by the Web. So, when people take a new release from any Linux vendor and download one of many applications, they expect it to run. If somebody breaks that [expectation], there is market pressure to correct the problem."

One example that he cites is the recent release of Red Hat Release 7. "Red Hat had some problems with compatibility with the compilers – with a lot of the software – and, they got raked over the coals pretty badly by the Linux community."

The Challenge: Finding Support

What could keep Linux from achieving success in the embedded market? The key issue is ongoing support. "The people who develop embedded systems have to be comfortable that Linux solves their requirements," says Singh. "You have to be able to depend on your supplier. In the past, Linux, being an open source product, didn’t have that kind of support for it. So, that’s one of the things that has been changing, as there are several embedded Linux suppliers like [LynuxWorks] and our competitors."

Shohat concurs. "Even though companies may love the idea of developing for Linux," says Shohat, "they need – in order to protect their shareholders – to buy into an environment that can guarantee that the code and its support will be available over a long supply chain and a long technological life."

That’s a critical issue when you consider that manufacturing automation hardware, for example, is expected to have a life of 10 years, and military aerospace developments are expected to have a life of 20 years.

A key example, says Shohat, is graphics. "There are many different ways to build a Linux product with varying graphical user interfaces (GUI) suited to the task at hand, but none of the GUIs are standardized. All the companies and developers that originated various GUIs, well, we don’t know if they are going to be around for a long time – no matter how wonderful their code. In a maturing market – and this market is growing up fast – it might pay to build customer trust by standardizing some offerings among GUI choices."

The Bottom Line

Despite challenges, the flurry of new products coming to market, endorsements by industry leaders, and myriad other factors presage a bright future for Embedded Linux.

One can argue that when it comes to embedded technologies, Linux is the future. As Shohat puts it, "Linux looks like it’s headed for ubiquity and omnipotence. Ubiquity would mean, everywhere. Omnipotence would mean, Linux rules."

Sean M. Lyden is a freelance writer based in Georgia. Serendipity brought his work to the attention of the Embedded Linux Consortium, and this article is his first project for the 120-member trade association.