Embedded Systems Conference 2000

At this year's Embedded Systems Conference, Linux loomed large in almost every booth. Talk about a year changing everything.

If you could travel back in time to the Embedded Systems Conference of September 1999, you would find that the “Embedded Linux Market” simply did not exist one short year ago. Sure, a growing number of developers and a handful of companies were starting to embed Linux, but as a market that anyone tracked, or paid attention to, embedded Linux simply hadn't made it onto the radar screens.

How many (and which) companies counted themselves as “Embedded Linux Companies” one year ago? How many embedded Linux news releases and new product announcements were issued at ESC in September 1999? Not many. One year ago, embedding Linux was a relatively rare phenomenon and was mostly the result of developer innovation—not the fruits of marketing plans and promotional strategies.

There were some exceptions, some pioneers. To find out what was going on in the “world of embedded Linux” one year ago, I turned to my favorite research tool (can you guess?) and scanned headlines around the time of ESC, September 1999. That search turned up many of the seeds of today's embedded Linux market. Companies making headlines about embedded Linux support included (alphabetically): Caldera, Cygnus, EMJ, FSM Labs, Lineo, MontaVista, PROSA and Zentropix. Early hardware partners for these embedded Linux pioneers included: Force, JUMPtec, Megatel, Motorola Computer Group, Synergy Microsystems and Ziatech. In particular, three embedded Linux announcements around the time of 1999's ESC foreshadowed the later formation of the Embedded Linux Consortium:

  • Zentropix announced RealTimeLinux.org, an effort to create momentum and consensus in real-time Linux solutions. Zentropix was later acquired by Lineo.

  • Cygnus announced the EL/IX API “in an effort to pre-empt the fragmentation of embedded Linux in the embedded computing segment.” Cygnus was later acquired by Red Hat.

  • Lineo announced an Embedded Linux Advisory Board (EMLAB), “an independent and vendor-neutral organization to promote and advocate the use of Linux in the embedded systems arena”.

Transporting back to the present—ESC, September 2000—where does embedded Linux stand today?

“Embedded Linux” Has Become a Disruptive Force in the Market

“Embedding Linux”, primarily an activity of innovative software developers one short year ago, has become the central focus of a rapidly growing number of commercial endeavors. The Embedded Linux Consortium, which didn't even exist seven months ago, already boasts over 75 corporate members. Major investments in embedded Linux, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, have been made by industry powerhouses like Motorola, IBM and Intel.

It's important to understand that the embedded market would be going through a major transition, right now, with or without Linux. Independent of Linux, developers would be scrambling to satisfy the growing demand for both intranet and Internet connectivity. They would be hastening to take advantage of the opportunities presented by new low-cost 32-bit RISC processors coupled with abundant program and storage (Flash) memory. High integration system-on-chip processors based on MIPS, PowerPC and ARM cores make it both easy and inexpensive to embed full-system features in even the simplest and most cost-constrained systems. These emerging technologies have dramatically boosted the capabilities of embedded devices, and have also greatly elevated expectation levels.

In short, embedded Linux arrived on a scene that was already in the midst of great upheaval, with developers working hard and fast to apply newly available technologies to newly defined challenges. Because it provided low-cost, open-source, yet state-of-the-art functionality, Linux was well positioned to be swept along by the tide of change in the embedded sea. The open availability of source, coupled with today's unheralded ease and speed of collaboration and communication, turned out to be compelling factors that enabled developers to quickly and efficiently adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing landscape. So Linux began to spread like wildfire in the embedded market.

Everyone Now Has a Linux Strategy

As compared with last September's ESC, Linux support was found practically everywhere this year. Today, nearly every company has a Linux strategy—whether how to take advantage of Linux or how to defend against it. Non-Linux stalwarts like Wind River, Microsoft and QNX all exhibit symptoms to varying degrees of the necessity of coming to grips with life in a world where embedded Linux is an increasingly major factor. For example, both Wind River and QNX joined the Embedded Linux Consortium last spring as founding members.

In addition Jerry Fiddler, Wind River founder and chairman, now devotes several slides during his talks to defining his company's position relative to embedded Linux. In the open-source debate last ESC, John Fogelin, Wind River's VP of Technology, said, “We see point-of-sale, ATMs, Industrial PC and Internet Appliance applications as an opportunity where Linux can replace DOS and Windows NT. We embrace Open Source and are evaluating Linux as an OS option for Wind River customers. We are prototyping solutions based on Linux, now.” In the latest ESC open-source debate, Fogelin reiterated Wind River's support for Open Source—while missing few opportunities to cast a FUD net over embedded Linux.

These days, even Microsoft's Embedded & Appliance Platforms Group endeavors to promote a new image of openness and flexibility. Although no explicit mention is made of Linux, expressions like “source access”, “simplified licensing”, “flexible business model” and “Windows Embedded Developer Community” have crept into the new Microsoft lexicon.

While not directly supporting Linux, QNX Software Systems announced a strategic initiative last June to reposition QNX, a POSIX-compliant RTOS, as “Linux-like”. Among the changes were the opening up of source code for many QNX modules other than the still proprietary and royalty-based QNX Neutrino kernel, plus no-cost availability of the QNX development toolkit to individuals and developers. The get.qnx.com web site launched around the start of this year's ESC, and, by the end of the show, QNX reported that well over 100,000 copies of the free QNX toolkit had been downloaded by developers.

The most radical adaptation strategy of all came from Lynx Real-Time Systems, which last fall embarked on the path of adding Linux to its product line, along side the company's POSIX-compliant RTOS, LynxOS. Half a year later, the company took the further step of changing its name in order to more directly reflect its dual-OS (LynuxOS + Linux) strategy, becoming “LynuxWorks”.