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Compaq develops Linux handheld

Researchers in Palo Alto, California, modify the open source operating system for use in a device that's slightly smaller than a PalmPilot.

Compaq Computer researchers have developed a Linux-based handheld computer called the Itsy, the company said today.

Researchers in the computing giant's Palo Alto, California, lab modified the open source operating system for use in a device that's slightly smaller than a PalmPilot, according to Compaq spokesman Gary Frazier.

The product is intended "to explore futuristic ideas in handheld and wearable computing," Frazier said. About 75 prototypes exist.

But Compaq doesn't intend to market the Itsy at retail. "This research could influence future products, but there are no plans to bring this to market," Frazier said.

Nonetheless, Linux's presence in the teeny Itsy computer can be seen as a proof point for the Unix-like software. Linux may not be as good as operating systems designed from the ground up to run handheld devices, but does provide a workable alternative--royalty free.

Of late, Linux has been cropping up in smaller and smaller computing devices. Examples include "thin client" systems--computers tied to a central server--and forthcoming TV set-top boxes. Even America Online is working on a Linux-based system designed to connect to its network with a minimum of fuss, according to sources.

Itsy is described at a Compaq Web site. The device has a touch screen and a few buttons. Not only does it run personal digital assistant software such as email, but also it plays the popular video game Doom, with the player navigating through the video game universe by tilting the Itsy forward and back. Compaq calls the system "rock 'n' scroll."

The machine uses a 200-MHz StrongARM processor and has a 320-by-200 pixel screen. It also comes with a microphone, speaker, and infrared port.

Some conference-goers attending Sun Microsystems' JavaOne conference may be able to take a closer gander, said Transvirtual chief executive Tim Wilkinson. The Berkeley, California, start-up focuses on cloning Sun's Java technology, but its software also powers the Itsy's graphical environment, Wilkinson said.

Compaq says the kernel for Itsy is freely available. Linux is an open-source operating system, meaning that anyone may see and modify the software, but that those modifications must be released back to the open source community.