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Race to the Middle

Despite these limitations, companies selling proprietary operating systems for embedded computers clearly see Linux as a threat. Indeed, some of them are catching the open-source spirit themselves. Last year, for example, Microsoft began to give developers free access to Windows CE for 60 days, so that they could experiment with the operating system in much the same way they can now download and experiment with Linux. Microsoft also slashed licensing costs (though not to zero). Kanata, Ontario-based QNX announced last year that it was going to make its real-time operating system, QNX Neutrino, available for free indefinitely-adding a new twist to the open vs. proprietary battle. QNX plans to allow free use of its operating system for noncommercial projects, while charging royalties for commercial use. Other old-guard companies, including LynuxWorks, will offer Linux alternatives to customers who insist on it, but recommend their own products whenever possible.

So what you have now is something like a race where two runners sprint toward the middle. Proprietary companies are trying to become more open. Linux supporters are trying to make Linux more embedded. But there might be a better solution than either of these: an open operating system that is designed from the ground up for use in the types of embedded computers that are increasingly pervading our world.

Enter eCos, which stands for “embedded configurable operating system.” ECos is an open-source, real-time operating system sold by Red Hat of Durham, NC-the leading seller of shrink-wrapped Linux software. “ECos doesn’t pretend to be all things to all people,” says Bill Gatliff. Gatliff is a software consultant who describes himself as a “free software advocate,” even though he is skeptical of embedded Linux. “Everyone talks about Linux having an army of engineers worldwide working on improving the code,” he says. “But it’s really just a very small number of programmers that are making substantive changes.” He says that eCos has “a small set of very good contributors, and that’s enough.”

Or perhaps there’s a Linus Torvalds-in-waiting, working quietly somewhere on an open-source operating system designed specifically for embedded devices, who is about to post her work on an Internet bulletin board. The Internet is the perfect way to attract a quorum of developers, enough to jump-start the operating system and give it credibility. It sounds unlikely, but then Linux itself seemed implausible before it happened.

Embedded systems will be the next computing paradigm, yet no clear winner has emerged in the current operating-system war. What happens next could tip the scales as to whether free software will prevail over the proprietary kind that has come to dominate the desktop-computing world. The outcome of this conflict will provide important lessons about how computer technologies evolve in the absence of a monopoly. And it will determine how and when we begin to see ubiquitous computing take shape.

Paradoxically, when the perfect operating system ascends into dominance in the embedded-systems market, it will be an anonymous technological wonder that you’ll never need to worry about. That’s the best kind of technology-something that works so well you forget it’s there. Maybe as we leave these desktop-centric years for a world of ubiquitous computing, we’ll begin to value computers for the functions they perform, rather than for what’s inside. Which is exactly the way it should be.

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