Linux Device Roundup

Four Linux device experts offer their opinions on the state of Linux devices and tell you about their must-have favorites.

In this article, Linux Journal speaks with four Linux device experts—Henry Kingman, Rick Lehrbaum, Shawn Powers and Bill Weinberg—in a virtual roundtable to take the pulse of Linux-based devices. They discuss the state of Linux-driven devices, their promise for the future and which ones are their favorites. Our roundtable participants are some of the best-known voices and “virtual pens” in the Linux device space:

  • Henry Kingman has edited the renowned site since 2003. Kingman started his Web publishing career in 1998 at ZDNet, building a massive TipZone database largely composed of Microsoft software bugs.

  • Rick Lehrbaum is the founder and editor of the popular site, an independent blog devoted to new and emerging device technologies. In addition to founding—now a part of—Lehrbaum cofounded Ampro Computers and consults for companies in the embedded market.

  • Shawn Powers is the celebrated Gadget Guy product reviewer for and Associate Editor for Linux Journal. He is also technology director for a K–12 school district in Michigan.

  • Bill Weinberg is an Independent Analyst and Consultant at He also serves as General Manager of the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum and Mobile Linux Weatherman for the Linux Foundation. Previously, Weinberg was with Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) as Senior Technology Analyst and manager of the group's Mobile Linux and Carrier Grade Linux Initiatives, as well as a founding team member at MontaVista Software.

Henry Kingman

Rick Lehrbaum

Shawn Powers

Bill Weinberg

What are the most significant trends in the world of Linux-based devices?

Henry Kingman: Some trends in the world of Linux may be:

  • Using desktop and server software instead of special “embedded” software (Nokia started this trend).

  • Using Linux in place of an RTOS (real-time OS).

  • Better “free” sources of Linux, such as the kernels, BSPs and filesystems supplied by chip or board suppliers and open-source projects.

  • More commercial support options, with hybrid service/product companies like Embedded Alley making headway.

  • Better tools, with the industry aligning behind Eclipse and its top-level Device Software Development Platform.

Trends caused by Linux may include:

  • Ridiculous feature proliferation, such as multiple radios in mobile devices, car stereos that can park the car, vending machines that phone in orders and so on.

  • Ubiquitous networking.

  • Ubiquitous Web control interfaces.

  • Near-ubiquitous media rendering and GPS.

  • Richer interfaces across the board.

  • Ever-shorter product life cycles.

Rick Lehrbaum: First, Linux is really well established. It's become the default choice for devices with 32-bit processors—that is, developers tend to start with the assumption that they'll use Linux and use something else only if they require special capabilities, or if the “politics” of their company are strongly stacked in favor of an RTOS or Windows CE/XPe.

Second, Linux has become the default OS for several device categories, including the emerging MID, Netbook and Nettop product categories; traditional thin-client terminals; Wi-Fi routers; set-top boxes, such as TiVo and the Roku Netflix box; and very significantly, mid- and high-end mobile phones.

Shawn Powers: I think largely the idea that Linux is no longer a buzzword, but rather the norm, is very significant. It's almost unsettling that so many devices are incorporating Linux, and yet that isn't as unique and exciting as it used to be from a marketing standpoint. Back in August at LinuxWorld, I noticed a huge trend in that so much of the conference was Linux, but wasn't really about Linux. It's as if we've finally taken over the world, and it's not as exciting as we thought it would be.

Bill Weinberg: Linux is becoming increasingly ubiquitous as an embedded software platform. From data gleaned from analyst reports and from my own direct contact with OEMs, about one-third of 32- and 64-bit designs are using Linux. Application areas include mobile telephony, consumer electronics, automotive systems/GPS, telecommunications and networking infrastructure, even medical and aerospace/defense.

Trends that I see include consolidation of systems/software platforms—mobile in particular. The visible manifestations of the trend toward consolidation include the merger of dot-orgs like LiPS and LiMo; companies like ACCESS, Azingo, Purple Labs and others joining LiMo and embracing that platform spec; Intel embracing Ubuntu/Canonical as part of Moblin and also buying OpenHand; Wind River buying Mizi Research; and Sun refocusing the role of Linux-based JavaFX Mobile to complement Google/Android.

Frankly, more important (in my humble opinion) than “.organic” mergers and activities is ORGANIC consolidation. In particular, if you look at the range of FOSS and commercial mobile platforms (including those mentioned above), you will see a consolidation of foundation components around: the Linux kernel 2.6, glibc, GTK+/Cairo/Pango, WebKit, GStreamer and Java (still a must for legacy interoperability). This development is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Consolidation (Copyright LinuxPundit 2008)

The second major trend is that the upward motion of the value line put OEMs in the pilot seat. OEMs and integrators have a better range of choices with regard to buying and/or building a Linux-based embedded platform and toolkit. They can certainly turn to OSVs, like MontaVista and Wind River, and/or smaller packaged product/services companies. They also can purchase application-purposed vertical stacks for mobile, automotive, MIDs and so on from companies like those mentioned above. They also can, with more confidence than ever before, self-integrate bits directly from OSS projects with their value-added internal code and ISVware. And, they can mix and match. This development is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2. OEMs in the Pilot Seat (Copyright LinuxPundit 2008)


James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.