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Linux start-up eyes consumer electronics

MontaVista Software is set to unveil a version of the open-source OS for consumer-electronics devices, seeking to have its software used in everything from karaoke wares to high-end TVs.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
MontaVista Software will release on Wednesday a version of Linux for consumer-electronics devices, as the company seeks to have its software used in everything from karaoke machines to high-end television sets.

MontaVista, whose software is used in personal video recorders from NEC and Sony, will also take advantage of this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to announce that its software is used in a new Panasonic video phone sold to Japanese customers with high-speed Internet connections.

With hundreds of in-development products using its software, MontaVista is succeeding in a market that hasn't been kind to some competitors. The Red Hat unit devoted to Linux for "embedded" computing devices, for example, has been punished by slower spending on the part of microprocessor companies, and the beleaguered Embedix (formerly Lineo) was acquired last month by Motorola subsidiary Metrowerks.

Linux began as a clone of Unix and found its initial stronghold in servers, powerful networked computers. Though Linux hasn't caught on widely in desktop and laptop computers, where Microsoft is dominant, companies including MontaVista, TimeSys, Red Hat, LynuxWorks and Motorola are trying adapt the software for the embedded computing market, which includes consumer-electronics products and devices as disparate as airplane radar and antilock-brake systems for cars.

Some companies have adapted Linux to higher-end consumer-electronics devices such as TiVo's personal video recorders or Hewlett-Packard's Digital Entertainment Center, which aren't far removed from regular PCs in terms of processing power. But MontaVista has customers fitting its software into some of the most tightly constrained spaces, such as the innards of cell phones.

"People are going to be pushing this down into very low-end devices," said Scott Hedrick, senior product marketing manager for MontaVista's consumer-electronics software.

"We have hundreds of products in development: mobile phones, advanced remote controls, high-definition televisions, telematics systems, musical instruments, karaoke machines, gaming machines," Hedrick said. "A lot of these are going to come out this year," including a Japanese mobile phone using high-speed 3G, or third generation, networks.

Analysts are bullish on the idea.

"One area we identify as a real opportunity for Linux is the consumer-electronics market," said Stephen Balacco, an analyst for embedded computing research firm Venture Development, which has been studying embedded Linux for two years. "We see it as really a very strong industry for Linux."

One of the chief attractions of Linux for consumer electronics is low price, Balacco said.

"It has reduced licensing costs," Balacco said, because embedded Linux companies typically don't require royalty payments for each unit of a product sold unless proprietary higher-level software such as Java is used. MontaVista charges for development tools that help companies select the software modules they need for their particular device, but it doesn't charge per-unit royalties.

MontaVista also sells a version of Linux for general-purpose devices, such as a high-speed printer from Canon, and another for networking devices. The company hopes the constant pressure to release new consumer electronics will make that product less susceptible to the economic dips that have afflicted the networking software.

"The top consumer-electronics companies need to continue to renew their products and add new features, or they might as well shut down their business and go home," Hedrick said. "They cannot give up on investing in and creating new products."

It's not hard to figure out why there are companies interested in the market. The Consumer Electronics Association projected Tuesday that United States customers bought $96.2 billion worth of consumer electronics in 2002, and the group projected U.S. buyers will snap up $99.5 billion worth this year.

Gates at the gates
Most embedded Linux companies are small, but Sunnyvale, Calif.-based MontaVista, with 160 employees, also faces established embedded operating system companies, including Wind River Systems, whose Digital Media Framework is geared for consumer-electronics devices.

Microsoft also has grander designs to spread Windows CE and XP into new niches beyond early ones such as handheld computers and personal video recorders.

"With its rich multimedia capabilities, it's clearly very well suited to consumer-oriented devices such as media players and set-top boxes," said Aubrey Edwards, a director in Microsoft's Embedded and Appliance Platforms Group. Embedded Windows has found a place in the souped-up cash registers called point-of-sale devices, and Microsoft has a telematics division focusing on in-car computers.

"The embedded offerings from Microsoft can power a range of devices," Edwards said. An advantage Microsoft has is that its widely used programming tools extend to the embedded realm, making it easier for programmers to move to the area.

MontaVista's Hedrick acknowledges the Microsoft threat. The profit margins on Windows give Microsoft the extra funding to subsidize new initiatives at competitive prices, he said.

"Microsoft could decide to just give everything away for five years" as a strategy for entering the embedded market, Hedrick said. "The good news for us is a lot of the consumer-electronics companies are quite allergic to Microsoft and are very interested in finding an alternative where they can control their own destiny."

MontaVista is working on improving the Linux software while capitalizing on existing projects outside the company, such as the O(1) scheduler initially developed by Red Hat and used to divide a computer's attention between different tasks. The company also has jointly written a white paper with IBM detailing new "dynamic power management"--better ways to reduce power usage by slowing down processors.

Lower power use is crucial for mobile devices such as cell phones and for electronics that mustn't overheat but have to operate quietly and thus can't use fans to keep cool. "Our focus is not to create a new power management system for PCs and servers, but for a wide range of embedded devices," Hedrick said, though the techniques could be useful in servers and PCs as well.

The company also is working on software to enable short start-up times. Consumer-electronics customers aren't willing to put up with the minutes it often takes to boot a PC, Hedrick said. MontaVista's work lets the simplest devices fire up in less than a second, though more complicated devices that must perform tasks such as registering on a network take longer.

These improvements all are released under the General Public License (GPL), the license that covers Linux, ensuring that anyone may use and modify the software. The GPL is the legal underpinning that enforces the openness of the Linux community's programming efforts.

"We highly respect (the GPL) and give back to the community. When we do new features, we put them back (into the Linux community's pool of software) and hope they will become standards," Hedrick said.

MontaVista's consumer-electronics version of Linux initially works with PowerPC 405LP processor for handheld computers and with Texas Instruments' 1510 and 5910 processors for handhelds and cell phones, though more chips will be added.

MontaVista's investors include consumer-electronics giants Sony, Matsushita (which also sells goods under the Panasonic name), Toshiba and Yamaha. IBM, which is cooperating with MontaVista to work on Java and low-power technology, also is an investor. Earlier investors have included Intel Capital and venture capitalists Alloy Ventures, US Venture Partners, RRE Ventures and WR Hambrecht.