The Coming of the Ants

by Joshua Drake

Ants are incredible creatures. They can lift ten times their own weight. They have a perfect social order, and no matter how many times you kill them, you swear you have seen the same one before. As Linux is becoming more popular it is beginning to resemble ants. I am an x86 Linux user, and I recently started writing a book on Yellow Dog Linux. Yellow Dog Linux is the leading Linux distribution for PowerPC-based computers. It was exciting at first; I am a hardware collector, and I have an Alpha, SPARC and even an Indy, but I have never had an Apple. After installing Yellow Dog Linux, I was let down. I wasn't disappointed because it is a bad product or because the installation failed. Actually, it has been great thus far. I was let down because I could have sworn I had seen it before. What I had was just like the Linux that was running on my K62-550 ten feet away.

Linux is starting to resemble ants in size as well. Yes, any number of the popular distributions will take up at least 300 megs on your hard drive. But there is a smaller movement afoot: the embedded Linux movement. The two most popular forms of the embedded Linux movement are the ability to run Linux on a PDA or Personal Digital Assistant--yes, a Palm or PocketPC--and real-time Linux, where Linux is running real-time applications on embedded micro-controllers.

Many Linux people would suggest that this continued proliferation is just another stroke in the demise of Microsoft. It very well may be. The ability for people to develop a product royalty-free means big bucks for the device manufacturer. It means the device manufacturer has a common code base with which it can work. It means the manufacturer can lean on a worldwide force of Linux developers to help create a product. It means that there is no single force dictating what the manufacturer needs to provide a product for the customers.

The real question is: does it really matter? I was sent a Vtech Helio as a sample to show off the capabilities of Linux in the embedded space. I was vehemently warned that the item was basically a pretty paperweight and under heavy development and should be considered, at a minimum, Alpha quality.

The Helio is a nice-looking product, very similar in appearance to a Palm. It currently does not have a color screen, but gray scale doesn't bother me. Initially the Helio gave me a bit of grief. When I received the Helio it turned on but didn't do anything else. I was only able to view the icons on the screen. I then followed the instructions in the back of the book to perform a hard reset. I am unsure of why the hard reset didn't work but it didn't, and by the time I was able to test it again the batteries were dead. After replacing the batteries and performing the rather obfuscated reset procedure again, I was still unable to get the Helio to successfully boot.

Luckily, with help from some very patient PocketLinux people, I was able to get it to boot. It appears that with the Helio, the sequence of the reboot process must be performed within a very tight time frame. Once the device is fired up, it provides a nice interface that looks like a standard PDA.

The Helio represents an interesting market. Their goal is to provide a PDA that a student can afford. If you look at the current rundown of PDAs, they are expensive, and can range anywhere from $399 to over $1,000. Vtech wants to provide the Helio for one hundred dollars and some change (street price). The closest competitor that I was able to find was the Palm m100. The Helio comes with 8MB of RAM and 2MB of flash RAM. It also contains a push-button voice recorder, which I found unique.

The stock version of the Helio can run VTos, which is the proprietary Vtech operating system, or you can load Pocket Linux onto the device.

The PocketLinux software is more than just Linux. It is a complete development platform. The PocketLinux that I know today is probably not what I will know in six months. It offers a unique ability for anyone to develop applications on an embedded, open platform. It does run Linux, but the actual interface and all the programs are written in Java with the Kaffe Java compiler. The Kaffe Java compiler is an independent, open-source Java compiler that requires zero SUN code to operate. PocketLinux uses XML to represent all data and is completely open source.

PocketLinux is providing an easier and faster way to get a product to market. It supports color, and you could feasibly use it in any number of products. These might include webpads, cell phones or Kiosks. The free nature of PocketLinux allows the device manufacturer to concentrate on the value-add and customer service.

PocketLinux currently runs on three PDAs: the Helio, the Compaq iPAQ and the Casio Cassiopeia. The iPAQ is said be the furthest along in stability but expensive, rumored to be over $500. You do get a lot of bang for the buck as the iPAQ H3650 comes with 32MB of SDRAM, 16MB of flash memory and a 206MHz StrongArm processor. Basically, the iPAQ is more powerful than the computer I owned just 12 months ago. The sheer specifications of the iPAQ suggest why it is the furthest along, and Linux has been able to run on the SrongArm processor for some time. The amount of memory helps a great deal as well.

The Casio E115 is similar to the iPAQ in that it has 32MB of RAM and 16MB of Flash. It is priced at $499.99. The best feature of the iPAQ and Casio is the color screen. It is like running a small laptop.

PocketLinux, à la VTech's Helio, comes with a default set of applications. It has a simple calculator, e-mail application, Web Sync, Memo Pad and Address Book. It looks like a PDA, and all of the applications will launch. I was able to use the calculator the most; it actually performs real math! I know that sounds silly, but there have been calculators out there that would let you do things like divide by zero (a division by zero is mathematically impossible).

Although all the applications launch, they do so with varying degrees of success. I was able to start the e-mail application but unable to compose a message. The Helio also allows you to jot things down in its little memo pad. True, it doesn't always remember that you wrote these memos and erases them, but I was still able to do it. And, frankly, it was just darn cool to see Linux booting on that small of a screen.

I don't want you to think of this as a useless product. Agreed, it is not ready for primetime. It does crash, and you have to go through a very frustrating device reset process to get the Helio to fire back up. Very simply the product is not finished. I would love to take a moment, six months from now, to see what has come from the constant development of the PocketLinux software. I would expect to see leaps and bounds in terms of usability and stability. I would expect a truly marketable product. The current embedded Linux offering was not a disappointment like my other experience, it was a glimpse into another Linux world.

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