In Search of the Embedded Linux “Killer App”

Rick surveys internet-edge devices including next-generation set-top boxes, server devices and wireless access points.

Ask a sampling of embedded Linux vendors what they think the most likely embedded Linux “killer apps” are, and you'll probably end up with a list similar to this:

  • Telecommunications infrastructure (high-availability, carrier-grade systems).

  • Handheld mobile devices (including PDAs and smart phones).

  • Wireless access points (for public 802.11 or Bluetooth WLAN access).

  • Digital set-top boxes (digital TV, video and audio systems).

  • Server devices (offering easy-to-use LAN-server/firewall/gateway/router/VPN functions).

Since the last three in this list—wireless access points, set-top boxes and server devices—are all small appliance-like “black boxes” that sit on the edge of the Internet and provide access to internet-based services and resources, let's combine those last three into one and call it “internet-edge devices”. That simplifies the list into three categories of embedded Linux killer apps: 1) telecommunications infrastructure, 2) handheld mobile devices and 3) internet-edge devices.

Telecommunications Infrastructure

I've already covered the first of these in this column a few months back (see “Embedded Linux Targets Telecom Infrastructure” in the May 2002 issue of Linux Journal). The growing support for Linux in this space from telecom equipment heavyweights HP, IBM, Motorola and Sun Microsystems leaves little doubt that Linux is going to have a bright future in the telecom equipment market—when the telecom market finally takes off, that is.

Handheld Mobile Devices

As for the use of embedded Linux in PDAs and other handhelds, success may well hinge on Sharp's Zaurus, the first such device to be strongly promoted by a world leader in consumer electronics. With the Zaurus just starting to make it into retail channels, it's too early to predict whether the Zaurus and its Linux-based software stack are going to be long-term winners. Rumors abound of ongoing projects to develop Linux-based PDAs and smart phones, particularly in Asia, so we can expect to see five to ten such devices hit the market during the latter half of 2002.

So far, embedded Linux has not fared well in the handheld mobile device market, with many projects being canceled and some resulting in stillborn products. Microsoft's Pocket PC, on the other hand, has grown steadily in market share at PalmOS' expense. Is it too late for embedded Linux in the handhelds market? The next six to nine months will answer that question.

Internet-Edge Devices

This brings us to the third killer app category: internet-edge devices. Think of these as highly compact, web-enabled server appliances having a variety of application-specific task assignments. Given the unquestioned success of Linux in the server space, coupled with the proven capability of Linux to satisfy the tight resource constraints of embedded devices, it should come as no surprise that Linux is likely to be a big winner in this important emerging class of products.

Let's take a look at some products in the internet-edge devices category that use embedded Linux as their internal OS platform.

Next-Generation Set-Top Boxes

This class of devices spans a wide range of capabilities, including such functions as personal video recorder functions, video-on-demand, e-mail and web access, and streaming video and audio media storage and playback. Here are a few embedded Linux-based examples:

  • TiVo Personal TV: need I say more?

  • Nokia Mediaterminal: this device adds a broad range of internet-based services to a normal TV set. Among the services available are digital audio/video, digital TV, video-on-demand, cached TV programs, web access, e-mail and chatting, games/gaming and many web-based software applications. The Mediaterminal's internal software is based on Linux, the Mozilla open-source browser, the X Window System, plus a unique user-interface technology called Nokia Navi bars. The embedded computer is a 366MHz Intel Celeron CPU along with the Intel 810 chipset, plus 32MB SDRAM and a minimum 20GB hard disk. (See

    Nokia Mediaterminal

  • ZapMedia ZapStation: ZapMedia's first product is a Linux-powered audio/video jukebox for serious consumer audiophiles. Beneath that stereo receiver look-and-feel lurks an 800MHz Intel Celeron equipped with 128MB RAM and a 30GB hard drive, running Linux kernel 2.4. The GUI is based on XFree86, Qt, Java and a customized Fresco Browser. (See

    ZapMedia ZapStation

  • HP Digital Entertainment Center: HP's first product in the consumer entertainment device space has Linux 2.4 and the X Window System inside. Its embedded computer is based on a 566MHz Celeron, with 64MB RAM and a 40GB hard disk, and its interfaces include USB, Ethernet, HPNA, a built-in V.90 modem, stereo audio and video out for display on a TV. The device can download and record music and videos from the Internet and can read and copy music CDs onto its internal hard drive. (See

    HP Digital Entertainment Center

  • Bokks Portable Media Player: this versatile device connects to a broadband network via DSL, cable or optical fiber and plugs in to a TV to allow e-mail and internet access. It stores movies, music and other files on its internal multi-gigabyte hard drive, allowing them to be listened to or viewed whenever the user is near a TV, stereo or computer and is based on a 266MHz National Semiconductor SC1200 system-on-chip processor running Linux kernel 2.4.x. (See

    Bokks Portable Media Player

  • Motorola DCT5000: Lineo announced that Motorola's Broadband Communications division had selected Lineo's Embedix for use in its interactive digital multimedia set-top appliances. The device includes features such as personal video recording, streaming media and home networking capabilities. (See

    Motorola DCT5000

  • JCC iBOX-2: Japan Computer Corporation (JCC) announced the development of a new internet appliance based on National's Geode “set-top box on a chip”, running an embedded Linux operating system. The device contains 16-32MB DRAM, an 8MB DiskOnChip Flash disk and has a built-in Ethernet port. (See

    JCC iBOX-2

  • VT Media VT-100: VT Media Technologies is partnering with Century Embedded Software to push into the low-cost broadband/IP set-top box market with a Linux-based solution. At CeBIT 2002, VT Media announced what they claim is the world's first broadband set-top box with a price point below $150 US. The device is based on National Semiconductor's x86-based STB reference design along with Century's WebMedia software stack and Linux port. (See and

    VT Media VT-100