Compaq's Approach to Linux in Your Hand

Digital, Compaq and evolution bring us another embedded Linux solution.

Digital, Compaq and evolution bring us another embedded Linux solution.

While the Palm has always been the top dog of palmtops for Linux users and Yopy (see “Linley on Linux”, LJ, September 2000) is the first kid on the block with Linux inside, there is Linux brewing at Compaq as well. iPaq, the handheld pocket PC from Compaq, should have the attention of most Linux lovers. While the shipping version runs Windows Pocket PC, getting a Linux version of this 200MHz handheld with 32MB of flash RAM is as easy as surfing to the Compaq web site. And what's more, the iPaq owes its very existence to open source and Linux in general, and a research project called “Itsy” in specific.

As Dick Greeley, program manager for the Open Handheld program and a member of Compaq's Corporate Research team, said in a recent interview, Compaq's study of handheld computing devices—seeing what it was that made them so popular and what could be done to improve on some of the product's deficiencies—had it origins not in Compaq, but in Digital Equipment Corporation, which Compaq acquired in 1998. Getting Digital's significant research labs as part of the bargain, Compaq became the home for Digital's “Itsy” project. The “Itsy” project was an attempt to marshal many of the technological innovations in computing power, screen quality and memory capacity for the burgeoning handheld computer market. It is this project, started four years ago, that eventually produced the iPaq.

“Our goal in research,” said Dick Greeley, “is to look into the future, to look beyond the time horizon of the existing business units, so to that extent, we're looking out further than a lot of these groups do.” What he and his researchers saw was that issues of power management and user interface were key to developing handhelds that would be popular and able to exploit the developments that were leading to the incredible shrinking machine. “While all these devices could shrink,” Greeley noted, “our fingers can't, our eyes and ears can't...so we needed to start thinking about how the user interface of the future is going to work with these devices...what can and can't be done and how will people really want to relate to them.”

Building a better user interface for handhelds led the Itsy team to a number of interesting innovations, one of which was the addition of a 3-D accelerometer which enabled a user to measure when the Itsy unit was tilted or moved. What good was this? Greeley calls it a “rock and scroll” interface. “The idea is that as you flip the unit around in your hand, it would be basically programmable and would do different things for you,” he explained, using the example of being able to turn pages on a particular application simply by flipping the wrist. So giddy had the Itsy team become with the success of their early prototype device—which was about the size of a deck of playing cards—that they even loaded the popular action-shooter game, DOOM, onto it. Recalled Greeley, “I think my favorite aspect was how you cocked the shotgun, by flipping the unit forward and backward.”

Why did the Itsy team choose Linux as the development operating system? Dick Greeley offers a number of reasons. For one, like many developers, they wanted something they could play with—from the source-code level up—on their own, without any proprietary strings attached. Second, the fact of the matter was that the Itsy project was not a secret; numerous developers from the academic and research communities were also involved to one degree or another. This involvement also led to the founding of the www.handhelds.org web site and the Open Handhelds program, which has as its goal the continued support of Linux on the iPaq, making the device available to the research/development community.

While the Itsy team choose Linux as their operating system, Greeley admits that, within Compaq, his research team is pretty “operating system agnostic”. He adds, “I think what's more critical than necessarily the OS choice is the notion of going open source, to be able to share and interchange the fruits of many people's efforts and to have access to a wide variety of applications that are out there, which makes innovation really possible.”

The transition from Itsy to iPaq took place when the newly Compaq'd Itsy research team went looking around the company for a new home for the project. Greeley says they found that home in Compaq's iAppliances Group, who had been working on an iPaq desktop PC and a new StrongARM-based handheld pocket PC. The iAppliances pocket device did not have the Itsy's 3-D accelerometer, but it did have the memory and expansion capabilities the Itsy researchers wanted. As Greeley said, “We proposed to them: Hey, let's launch this, what we'll call the Open Handheld program...We'll take our Linux port that we had originally done for Itsy, get it up to the latest revision of the Linux kernel, and at the same time, adapt it to work with the iPaq. This would be a great way to get people innovating on our platform.”

As for what might be called the Itsy/iPaq premium, Dick Greeley points to a number of things he believes help set his handheld apart from the rest of the pack. “First of all,” he says, “is the processing power. We've got a much faster processor than everybody else.” Second, he points to the iPaq screen, which he suggests is at least as good, if not better, than others on the market. “You can look at the screen in bright daylight and still see it,” he insists. “You could find your keys in the dark using the screen like a flashlight,” Greeley adds by way of example. The iPaq screen also has both a variable brightness control as well as an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts to the environment. The unit also gets a maximum of 12-14 hours on its battery, but one of the key features as far as Greeley is concerned is the fact that the operating system (Microsoft Pocket PC standard or Linux, available from the Compaq web site) is stored in flash memory as opposed to being burned into ROM. This gives the user increased ability to load Linux on the iPaq by loading into flash instead of burning a new ROM. Says Greeley, “That proved to be an important thing for us and it's actually made our whole program possible.”

Only recently started, it is probably impossible to gauge how much Linux developer interest will flow toward the Itsy/iPaq project. Greeley himself notes that, with regard to the Linux port to the iPaq, “we don't have all the bells and whistles yet,” meaning there is no browser and the wireless Ethernet is enroute, but has not yet arrived. The Linux Itsy does feature the X Window System, however, and Greeley expects progress to come quickly. “We've started shipping the new iPaq in the last several weeks and there's been very good demand for them...One of the things we've heard a lot of the last week and a half is a lot of Linux people saying, “Finally! I've got my thing I can play with now! Thank you for following through!”--even though the product is not exactly the same as the Itsy.

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