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Linux makes a move into handhelds

In a market report on handheld computers from research firm IDC, analysts will be tracking Linux-based personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the first time.

Linux is finding another inroad into the computing world besides PCs and servers.

In a market report on handheld computers due out by the end of the month from research firm IDC, analysts will be tracking Linux-based personal digital assistants (PDAs) for the first time.

"We're going to try to accurately estimate the penetration of Linux on the PDA world, but it's going to be difficult because the market is just so fragmented and new," IDC analyst Kevin Burden said.

Burden anticipates market share for the open-source Linux operating system will be very small compared with Palm's OS and Microsoft's Pocket PC, which have been in the market longer and are more established. But, "two years down the road, we may be talking about Linux a lot more," he said.

"For the next couple years, until a PDA-compatible version of Linux is available, we don't expect to see Linux mount an assault on the Palm OS, Pocket PC and EPOC markets," Merrill Lynch analyst Melanie Hollands said in a report.

In the short term, the biggest obstacle for Linux is that it doesn't have a governing body to steer the development of the operating system, according to Burden.

The same can be said about the development of Linux for PCs. Linux is open-source software that depends on a community of developers to expand and update the operating system.

The main benefit of Linux is that it allows any developer to manipulate the source code to fit particular needs without having to depend on a single supplier for the code. The code is also free, which helps to reduce the cost of products that eventually use the OS. However, this also proves to be a problem when companies try to standardize on the operating system, because they have to support the OS and do their own work to develop and update it.

In the PC world, Linux developers often focus on a version of the operating system from a company with growing business prospects, such as the Linux versions put out by market leader Red Hat or European contender Mandrake.

CNET's Linux Center The same is beginning to happen in the PDA world. Currently, there are three commercially available adaptations of Linux for PDAs, including Qt Palmtop Environment from Trolltech, Microwindows PDA Operating Environment from Century Software and PocketLinux PDA Framework from Transvirtual Technologies.

Hardware manufacturers are also announcing products using Linux. The most notable support comes from Sharp. Smaller manufacturers have also announced future Linux products, including Agenda Computing's VR3, G.Mate's Yopy, HNT's Exilien, Mitac's Cat, VTech's Helio and SK Telecom's IMT2000 WebPhone.

The devices may face obstacles when it comes to compatibility between gadgets and operating systems.

"Without a standard OS, devices may not be able to speak to each other or use the same software, essentially making them islands when it comes to sharing information, and that is a big detriment," Burden said. "The key to any OS is application support. Without it, you're starting from ground zero with every OS and device using that OS."

Agenda Computing Chief Strategy Officer Ian Eliot responded that "there's a certain amount of hype there that is aimed at discrediting Linux."

There are a couple thousand developers working on applications for the VR3, according to Eliot, and about 200 applications already available. Eliot added that the VR3 will have about 25 applications when it begins shipping in the third week of May.