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New strategy challenges Linux firms for real-time computing

Relative newcomer MontaVista Software launches an initiative to make the Linux operating system work better in devices that must respond to commands immediately.

Competition is heating up for companies trying to embed Linux into non-PC computing devices.

MontaVista Software has launched an initiative to make the Linux operating system work better in small devices that must respond to commands immediately, in "real time." Real-time operating systems are used to control devices such as a car engine's fuel mixture or assembly line robots.

The software raises MontaVista's profile at a critical time, as both new and established companies are trying to grab as much real estate as possible in the new market for Linux in non-PC "embedded" devices.

Leading competitors are Lineo, with a solid start and real-time Linux expertise, and Lynx, with its well-established but proprietary LynxOS. Red Hat, probably the best-established Linux company, also is expanding outside of its stronghold powering servers.

Although it's a relative newcomer in real-time and embedded devices, Linux has a solid future, said Giga Information Group analyst Carl Zetie. The reason: Linux has the potential to spread across a wide range of devices instead of being employed only in specific product categories.

"Up until now, we've had specific operating systems for different niches," Zetie said. But now, "the categories are breaking down. The old definitions don't apply."

For example, Linux could be appropriate for "crossover" devices such as a gas pump that lets a person browse the Web while the pump itself sends information about the demand for premium gas to the supplier, Zetie said.

To improve real-time response, MontaVista is providing an alternate "scheduler," part of the core of Linux that keeps tracks of the computing processes going on. The new scheduler will provide good response without requiring people to learn a new way of programming, said Bill Weinberg, director of marketing at MontaVista.

Another new real-time Linux company, OnCore Systems, has similar designs, however. On Friday, it unveiled its own effort to tune Linux to real-time requirements--an effort similar to MontaVista's.

MontaVista says it is philosophically closer than some competitors to the "open-source" community, which has developed Linux by sharing, modifying and redistributing the original programming instructions of the software.

MontaVista's software is completely open source, said Brian Grega, vice president of sales and marketing. In comparison, Lineo adds higher-level proprietary software.

Another difference between the companies is in royalties--the fee a company pays to sell a device using the software. Lineo charges royalties for Embedix, its version of Linux for gadgets. MontaVista won't charge royalties but will charge for use of software development tools and technical support. Support contracts cost between $5,000 and $10,000 a year depending on depth and responsiveness.

CNET's Linux Center MontaVista was founded in spring 1999 by real-time software pioneer Jim Ready and $500,000 seed money to start developing its version of Linux, called Hard Hat. In March, the company announced a $9 million investment from Alloy Ventures and U.S. Venture Partners.

Like many Linux firms, MontaVista is growing as fast as possible. Six months ago, the company had 10 employees, a number that increased to 25 by the end of January and to 50 today.

The company has 25 customers, though the only one that has been announced is Kerbango's Internet radio.