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Linux being bolstered for gadgets

Use of the Linux operating system in TV set-top boxes, cars, and other non-PC devices is becoming a more serious possibility with the backing of some established companies.

Use of the Linux operating system in TV set-top boxes, cars, and other non-PC devices is becoming a more serious possibility with the backing of some established companies.

Lineo, a sister company to Linux seller Caldera Systems, will release its Embedix version of Linux in two months, the company said. Embedix is designed for "embedded" devices that typically aren't large, general-purpose, and customizable the way PCs are.

And Cygnus Solutions, which has a long track record in helping to produce the programming tools essential to Linux, is trying to bring its expertise into the embedded Linux area.

Using Linux in embedded devices such as handheld computers is one of the directions Linux leader Linus Torvalds has graced with his interest. But in order to convince companies such as Sony and Motorola to use Linux, it needs support of the type that's growing up right now for Linux in server computers, observers say.

Embedded Linux projects and products are beginning to emerge, however. For example, a company called Penguin Radio is working on an Internet radio based on Linux and an Intel processor, and LinuxCE has begun work on Linux for consumer electronics devices such as handheld computers.

Cygnus is a big backer of the open-source philosophy that underlies Linux, under which anyone may freely download, modify, and redistribute the underlying programming code. In fact, Cygnus hopes to repeat the success of Linux with its own creation, an open-source embedded operating system called eCos.

But will eCos compete with Linux? Not under a plan announced by Cygnus that will let software such as user interfaces or Web browsers run on either operating system, said chief executive Alex Daly in an interview.

In any case, eCos is designed for smaller devices than Linux, Daly said.

"Linux is not well-suited for small-footprint uses" where space and power consumption are tightly constrained, he said. Linux will be good for some devices, such as set-top boxes or handheld computers, and eCos will be good for smaller devices such as cell phones or pagers, he said.

"With eCos, we can create a very tight kernel and a small footprint," Daly said.

Cygnus is developing a standard called Elix that's designed to get around concerns that Linux will become fragmented into different versions as programmers modify it for the wide variety of devices in the embedded market. Cygnus is seeking comment on the Elix API.

Earlier this year, Lineo renamed itself and began attacking the embedded Linux market with gusto. The company signed a deal with Motorola under which Embedix will be developed for use in Motorola devices. Motorola aims its PowerPC chips for embedded uses including medical imaging devices such as CT scanners, factory floor robots, and cars.