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Linux, the open-source operating system that some say could give Microsoft Windows a run for its money, is now taking aim at a new market: personal digital assistants. If the nonproprietary software can stake its claim in that area, it could help lay the foundations for a generation of less expensive handheld devices.

In recent months, there has been a surge of interest in Linux handhelds. Irvine, CA’s Agenda Computing and Redmond, WA’s Empower Technologies have started selling personal digital assistants that come preloaded with Linux, and several other companies now offer versions of Linux that can be installed on handheld devices-like the Compaq iPAQ-that normally run Microsoft’s Pocket PC operating system.

Empower Technologies’ Linux DA not only runs on Empower’s own device but is the first distribution of a Linux-based operating system capable of running on the Palm handhelds, which have dominated the market for several years. Its designers overcame “a lot of technical barriers,” according to Paul Leung, CEO of Empower, as Palms have only a fraction of the memory and processing power of the iPAQ and other handhelds.

Leung admits that few users will abandon the popular Palm operating system and its thousands of applications for Linux DA. Instead, he sees Linux DA as the beginning of a common operating system for a wide range of personal digital assistants. “We’re trying to create a common platform that more manufacturers can support, giving people more choice,” he says. Flooding the market with such clonelike devices could drive down prices, Leung says.

Industry analysts, however, are ambivalent about the prospects for Linux handhelds. Stacey Quandt of Cambridge, MA-based Giga Information Group says the idea is a viable one but adds that few people will buy a handheld simply because it runs Linux. “They will buy a device because of the applications it supports and if it provides enhanced functionality,” she says. If the availability of compatible software remains limited, Quandt says, Linux handhelds “will be a hard sell.”

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