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Start-up helps bring Linux to gadgets

An electronics manufacturer is teaming up with an open-source company to bring the Linux operating system to gadgets and other devices.

An electronics manufacturer is teaming up with an open-source company to bring the Linux operating system to gadgets and other devices.

MontaVista Software, a three-month-old Silicon Valley start-up, will write a version of Linux called Hard Hat for use on Force Computers "tiny" computers with embedded processors. The project will begin with Intel-based machines and later will include PowerPC machines.

Force Computers is a subsidiary of Solectron, one of the largest manufacturers of computers and other electronics.

Linux has its stronghold in servers, which is no surprise because that environment is where the roots of Unix are deepest. However, several companies are pushing Linux down into smaller and smaller devices, an act that requires some modifications. For example, some machines lack equipment such as hard disks, and all of them have tighter constraints on resources such as memory and processor power.

Part of the appeal of Linux in this space is that it's a good way to avoid paying royalties to a company that developed an operating system, an important consideration in the device market where systems can sell for just a few hundred dollars.

MontaVista will focus on "the need for small memory footprint, guaranteed response, high availability, and other key issues that desktop Linux does not provide," the company said.

Other examples of Linux in small devices: a Web server smaller than a matchbox, Compaq's prototype Itsy, Wyse's diskless thin clients, Empeg's MP3 car audio systems, and NetGem's TV set-top boxes. Some have even put Linux on Palm Pilots.

Hard Hat isn't the only open-source project in the embedded space. Cygnus Solutions has its eCos project, an open source embedded operating system that the company gives away for free. The idea with eCos is to encourage different companies to experiment with the software, but to call upon Cygnus programmers' familiarity with eCos to tune it to the task at hand.

Cygnus recently released version 1.2 of its eCos software.

Hard Hat Linux version 1.0 will be available in the third quarter for customers of Force's small computers, the company said.