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Embedded Linux in decline?

Actually, what's really happening is that the embedded Linux market appears to be growing up. It's about time.

Embedded Systems Design's annual survey of developers has turned up some interesting data: the embedded Linux gold rush may finally be over. My first job in open source was for embedded Linux pioneer Lineo, so I found this news both interesting and surprising: Linux for embedded (mobile phones, SOHO routers, etc.) is about as certain as my daughter asking for a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch.

In other words, guaranteed.

In looking at the data, that may still be the case, though possibly we've turned the corner on embedded Linux's hype cycle, too, as Richard Nass in an article for ESD suggests.

Editorial Review Board Member Bill Gatliff thinks that we're finally turning the hype corner on Linux and realizing it's not right for all applications. "People are getting realistic about it."

Here's what (contributing editor Michael) Barr had to say: "I was surprised a few years ago at how strongly Linux came on. There always seem to be some interesting new technologies, but they are not always adopted. But Linux actually succeeded, and a lot of people were using it in telecomm apps and so on, for stuff that looks like a PC. Clearly that trend is continuing, but obviously at a slower pace."

This seems reasonable to me. I think it's also quite likely that the number of those not considering embedded Linux has gone up because, well, so many people are already using it. If I were answering that question, and if I were already actively using Linux, I'd probably answer that I'm not considering using Linux, too. Why consider what I'm already doing? In other words, what I've already considered?

Let's be candid, though: it's also quite possible that the expected benefits of embedded Linux didn't pan out. Or, rather, I should say the hyped and unrealistically expected benefits. When I was involved in embedded Linux, the No. 1 drivers of adoption were cost and flexibility. Much more than Linux in the enterprise world or desktop, embedded developers were adopting Linux because it was perceived to be free.

In fact, I can remember more than one occasion when a big OEM opted not to go with Lineo because we charged for commercial support, tried to go it alone, and came back to us to purchase support six to nine months later after they failed. Good service always costs money, whether you do that service yourself or pay someone else to do it. Either you pay in terms of your own time/resources or you pay in terms of someone else's. There really is no free lunch.

So, what do I get from the survey results? Not much, except that expectations about embedded Linux have matured. This is actually probably a great time to get into this market, now that the "free lunch and superhuman power!!!" mentality about embedded Linux has worn off. I suspect that the market would be more amenable to a MontaVista or Wind River providing commercial Linux support now than it was back when I was involved.