Free at Last!
To Jim Ready, the answer is clear: embedded systems need open-source software. More precisely, they need Linux.Ready still wears a short-sleeved button-down shirt, the uniform of old-school Silicon Valley before the invasion of Dockers and T-shirts. Back in the early 1980s, he practically invented operating systems for embedded computer systems; his VRTX was one of the first commercial products for embedded systems. He once attended a meeting where an executive at a major chip company referred to Bill Gates as “that pipsqueak.”
Even though VRTX still has its fans, Ready is a dedicated open-source zealot. In 1999, he founded MontaVista Software, staking the company’s future on the prediction Linux would sweep the embedded computer market much as Microsoft Windows did the desktop-PC market. But since Linux is an open-source operating system, this domination could come without all the messy monopolistic overtones that taint Microsoft’s position. “Linux is the Switzerland of operating systems,” Ready says. “You can move to another vendor if you want, and still use Linux.”
Originally created by Linus Torvalds in 1991, Linux code is available to all but obligates developers to make their changes available to others. Linux has benefited from thousands of person-hours of development worldwide and has become the shining example of what’s good about the open-source movement. Linux was originally conceived as a desktop operating system, then stretched to fit the computers that work as network servers. Linux’s next trick, if Ready is right, will be to shrink into embedded devices like cell phones and PDAs.
Step inside MontaVista’s Sunnyvale, CA, facility and you immediately sense you’re not in a typical Silicon Valley startup. No one asks you to sign in. You don’t need an identification badge or an escort. You can attend engineering meetings at will, without being asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Nothing is stamped proprietary. The company takes the open-source movement to heart: its main product is Hard Hat Linux, which MontaVista makes available to customers and competitors alike.
Linux has recently popped up as the operating system powering several high-profile embedded projects, including IBM’s prototype of a Dick Tracy-style wristwatch computer, as well as handheld Internet access devices jointly marketed by Gateway and America Online. According to Electronics Market Forecasters, nearly one-third of embedded- systems engineers plan to give Linux a try this year.
The first advantage open-source software gives to developers is access to the so-called kernel-those lines of code at the heart of the operating system. This access is extremely important in the world of embedded computing, where making the hardware and software work together as efficiently as possible is vital.
“Embedded programmers need to know everything, about the hardware, about the operating system, about the application,” says Brad Christensen, director of product marketing for Lineo, an embedded-Linux company in Salt Lake City. “With Linux they can see the source. They can reach right into it and change it. It gives them the control they’re looking for.”
Linux is also attractive simply because it’s there for the downloading. Two years ago, San Jose, CA, startup Kerbango wanted to be the first company to produce a stand-alone Internet radio. For months, Kerbango was stuck in contract negotiations with the vendor of a proprietary operating system, stalling the product’s development. With nothing better to do, one day an employee decided to download Linux and give it a try.
“He had it up and running on our board ten times faster than it was taking us to get a contract signed,” says Carl Hewitt, a founder of Kerbango. In February 2000, the company unveiled the first stand-alone Internet radio. Hewitt estimates that in addition to saving time, the company saved $500,000 in license fees in the first year alone by using Linux. Last year, 3Com bought Kerbango for about $80 million-the brass ring in a summer of soft IPOs. (In March, however, citing the “abruptness and severity of the current technology slowdown,” 3Com announced it would be discontinuing Kerbango and other Internet-appliance product lines.)
In addition to sheer accessibility, open-source software offers an unbeatable price. Embedded systems are extremely cost sensitive, and the operating system often needs to cost pennies per unit. That’s why, about one-fourth of the time, developers write their own operating systems to avoid licensing fees. An open-source operating system lets them avoid both the fees and the work of writing something completely new.
A final advantage is flexibility: you can change open-source code, as long as you share what you’ve done. This allows open-source developers to add any little quirk they need to make something work exactly as they want it to. Significantly, this makes it easy to add features that would never hold enough mass appeal to make their way into a general-purpose operating system-such as a single-line command that could align all the solar panels on a space station for maximum energy collection.
If the story stopped there, then Linux and the open-source movement would triumph over all would-be evil empires in the embedded-systems market. That would be the Hollywood outcome with strong sentimental appeal. But despite its advantages, Linux has limitations that even its legions of flag-wavers can’t seem to fix. And even open source supporters, in some cases, think the embedded-Linux movement is a shameless waste of energy.