Linux for Suits: Grass Roots vs. Giant Roars

While big-name companies scramble to protect business models, this company is making open-ended devices that give customers the right to control their own telephone and media experiences.

In January 2003, after a big PR buildup that included coverage in Reuters and USA Today, Kunitake Ando, president and CEO of Sony, announced in a keynote to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that his company and Matsushita would lead the rest of the industry's giants into a future of “always on” and interactive devices running a new Linux distro.

That following July, LinuxDevices wrote, “What began as a small but powerful call for an embedded Linux collaboration among Japanese consumer electronics (CE) manufacturers last December turned into a roar today, as eight consumer electronics powerhouses proclaimed the establishment of the CE Linux Forum (CELF).” Members included Sony, Matsushita, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba. Later, the roster grew to include IBM, Mitsubishi, Metrowerks, Motorola, Nokia, LSI Logic, HP, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Phoenix, Sanyo and MontaVista.

Naturally, I expected to hear an even bigger roar for Linux at CES/2004 the following January. Instead, out of more than 3,000 exhibitors, only 11 bothered to mention Linux in their show guide texts. Except for RealNetworks, none of them were A-list companies. Today, the CELF site appears moribund. The copyright says 2003–2004. The last update was in February 2004. When I write to the e-mail address on the site, I hear nothing back.

So, rather than a great roar by a choir of giants, CELF instead looks like what old hands in Silicon Valley call a Barney agreement. That's where “partners” say “I love you, you love me”, and not much else happens.

Even if CELF eventually does produce a working distro, it reminds us in the meantime that Linux is fundamentally a grass-roots phenomenon. It's bottom-up, not top-down. I don't mean to discredit IBM, HP, Novell, Oracle or any of the other BigCos that promote Linux, support its development and fly the penguin flag. I do mean to credit the little guys who not only develop Linux, but deploy it in the marketplace. Especially the ones who deliver and not merely promise.

Take Unication, one of the 11 exhibitors waving the penguin flag at CES/2004. Unication is a Taiwan-based company that has, among other things, made Motorola pagers for the past 13 years. Unication recently has branched into building wireless gateways, servers, VoIP products and PDAs, all leveraging Linux's virtues as free and highly useful building material. The result is some very capable stuff, unencumbered by the product marketing strategies practiced by Unication's giant competitors.

Case in point: Unication's SC-203, an 802.11g-based router that delivers seven Web services in one device: Web, e-mail, printing, voice over IP (VoIP), VPN, firewall and media streaming, including MP3 audio and MPEG video. It's not hard to imagine the possibilities. Best of all, it doesn't come with any big vendor's digital rights management (DRM) or proprietary software lock-in. It's a box of open standards, ready to use. So, when you think about uses, you don't have to wonder what Sony or Philips or Apple or HP has stuck in there to please their lawyers and “content partners” while keeping you from doing any darn thing you want.

For example, the SC-203's VoIP SIP server, which works like a proxy server, supports VoIP calls over wired or wireless (Wi-Fi) connections. Users can make VoIP calls from any open Wi-Fi hotspot, through the SC-203. VoIP calls require paired FXS (phone) and FXO (line) devices. These are available from a variety of makers. Unication's server-side VoIP gateway is the WG-205, which comes in two models: one with two FXS ports and the other with one FXS (phone) and one FXO (line) port. The WG-205's default server IP points to the SC-203. Private IPs are permitted behind the SC-203 to make VoIP calls. The WG-205 either can connect to the SC-203 LAN port or connect independently through an ISP, as long as the Net is available.

The company also makes a Wi-Fi and Ethernet-based VoIP phone you can carry on the road. The U-Phone features include call holding, call forwarding, caller ID, configurable ring tones and melodies, a FIFO log of the last ten calls and the ability to redial any of them. It has a talk time of 2.5 hours and a standby time of 30 hours. So you carry a VoIP phone number wherever you go, ready for use when you're within Wi-Fi range of the Internet. You need some smarts to make it all work, but there's an influential market (that would include Linux Journal readers) for whom that's exactly the idea.

Several years ago, David Isenberg famously got himself fired from AT&T by writing a landmark essay titled “The Rise of the Stupid Network”. It was an argument for reversing the phone company's traditional approach, which was to maximize (preferably proprietary) intelligence inside the network and to restrict available use of the network by attached devices. Isenberg said the ideal model instead was making the network as stupid as possible in the middle, supporting unlimited and unrestricted intelligence connected from the outside. In other words, he wanted AT&T to build services that respected the wisdom of the Net's end-to-end architecture.

What Isenberg recommended was the corporate equivalent of a sex change, and AT&T couldn't bear to think of it. Smart middles always have been the telco and cable-carrier equivalent of the top-down producer-to-consumer worldview of every large producer in the Industrial Age. Smart-middle thinking is what accounts for the asymmetries of your cable and DSL connections. Asymmetrical bandwidth (fat-down, thin-up) certainly can be justified by typical usage patterns. But they're also deployed to restrict customers to the roles of consumers. There is no evidence that the prospect of consumers is even thinkable to most telephone and cable companies. Never mind that many of the Net's own infrastructural building materials, including countless servers running the LAMP suite on Linux, are products of the demand side, supplying itself.

So is it any surprise that we've hardly heard a peep about CELF? The very notion of “consumer electronics” presumes restricted autonomy on the demand side. Whatever CELF produces, we can be sure Linux in most cases will be too deeply embedded to serve as a freely useful platform for anybody other than the manufacturer. I hope they prove me wrong, but I'm not holding my breath.

Back at last year's CES, the coolest device I saw was Unication's Magic PDA. It's three devices in one: a PDA, an MP3 player and a VoIP phone. At the time of this writing, the phone uses only the G.711 codec, which typically is used for intranet calls. The next phase, I'm told, will implement all VoIP properties, including the support of G.723.1, G.729, G.726 and G.711u/a codecs, plus electronics to cancel echoes and suppress noise. What I instantly loved about it, however, was its ability to broadcast MP3 files on any frequency of the FM radio band, so you can listen to it on a car radio or home audio system.

I normally don't like to plug any company, but Solon Lee of Unication has been a helpful and patient correspondent while I worked on this piece, and I love to see pioneering companies like his compete in a market dominated by roaring giants. Especially when those giants make only noises where their products ought to be. If you can help Solon and his company find regional agents and distributors, anywhere in the world, drop a note to Unication at salesenquiry@uni.com.tw.

I'm also interested in progress reports on CELF and anything else anybody is doing with Linux at CES/2005. I'll be there, rooting for the roots.

Resources for this article: /article/7861.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is senior editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column is Linux for Suits and his biweekly newsletter is SuitWatch. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage (garage.docsearls.com), a sister site to Linux Journal on the Web.

______________________

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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You Missed a Few Key Points

Anonymous's picture

Doc:

CELF doesn't have an agenda of building a distribution. They have an agenda of specifying/building open source technologies that enable Linux to be usable in consumer products. They've done a fair amount of that; check their 1.0 spec. There's at least one distro in the market that delivers ALL of these capabilities.

Consumer products are not intended to be "development target systems". Why would you expect consumer product companies to attempt to provide their consumer products in such a way that they are usable as development target systems? Is it wrong that they won't spend any effort in this regard? Their usage focus is on the consumer user experience, as it needs to be. Consumers don't care what's inside.

Linux in consumer products is moving very fast and very deep. There are multiple phones now on the market from the likes of Motorola PCS, NEC, and soon Panasonic. There are multiple products from Philips, with many more expected. The move to Linux in Asia is so significant that Microsoft is one again moving to a FUD campaign: witness Balmer's recent "we'll sue NEC and Panasonic for patent infringement if they ship Linux based products" speach in China.

In summary:

- CELF has done good enabling work
- Linux is moving forward extremely well in the consumer space.
- Openness of consumer products as a development platform is irrelevant.

Sorry Doc...but you're missing the key points in just about every regard.

Missed points?

D. Searls's picture

Well, there seems to be a lot more on the CELF site than there was when I wrote this piece.

And thanks for pointing out the CELF 1.0 spec (though it would be nice if it were in HTML and not just in .pdf).

Can any of ya'll point me to some examples of the CELF spec at work? Also to companies that are willing to talk (hell, brag) about how they're using Linux in their devices. I'll be going to CES in January, and would like to see more than the tiny handful of companies (which included Unication - bravo for them) willing to talk out loud about how they were putting Linux to use in January 2004.

I'm especially interested in ways that Linux and its values are helping make (I hate the term "consumer") electroinics products more open and interoperable.

Thanks.

Why call a human being a "consumer"?

Anonymous's picture

Dividing customers into "developers" and "consumers" is a recipe for stagnation. At one extreme is the old-school embedded systems model, where you have to get expensive development hardware to change anything. (Priced an ARM development board lately?) At the other extreme is the web model, where anybody can "view source", save, hack, and produce a new site. The web model is a better recipe for progress because it brings in innovation from users who have something to say, not just from those who happen to have a development kit.

It seems to me that Doc has always argued it's a bad idea to segregate some customers into a "consumer" black hole, where product and ideas flow one way and only money flows out.

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