Electronic Design

Embedded Software> Linux At A Crossroads

The year 2004 will likely be an inflection year for embedded Linux. Linux will either lose its momentum and be relegated to second-tier embedded OS status, or as VDC expects, become a leading OS supported by many and used by many more. An interesting confluence of events will occur in 2004:

  • Enough high-quality tools will have been launched by various vendors, reducing the impact of a lack of tools on adoption.
  • The R&D period (beginning in earnest in 2001) in which many OEMs explored Linux will be nearing its end. While many products are shipping (most without mention of Linux), substantial research remains a key driver of this market. That will change in 2004 as more production track projects are started.
  • The SCO lawsuit against IBM set for an April 2005 trial date will be hanging over the market like a dark cloud. This seems to have had negligible impact on adoption to date but should be monitored.

VDC estimates that worldwide shipments of embedded Linux operating systems, add-on components, and related services were $62.6 million in 2002, and will reach $156.6 million in 2007. These estimates include aggregate revenues achieved by OS vendors from the sales of the following products and services:

  • Linux OS licenses and subscriptions, and run-time royalties
  • Add-on components, including IDEs, compilers, debuggers, design-automation tools, and similar products
  • Technical support and maintenance, and professional services related to the deployment of the vendor’s own operating-system distribution.

Growth in the embedded Linux market will be fueled mainly by:

  • A continued trend in the licensing of commercial OSs as a result of increased product complexity and sophistication, budget constraints, the need to increase developer efficiency and productivity, and reduced time-to-market.
  • The further maturity of Linux as an embedded platform and increasing support for target processors and embedded hardware board support.
  • A tools-centric focus with increasing access to tools and integrated development environments (i.e., built around the open-source Eclipse platform for tools integration). This offers developers a multi-language, multi-platform, and a multi-vendor supported environment, and allows OEMs to be more efficient in product development, reduce integration challenges, and address time-to-market pressures.
  • Expanding use of Linux across all vertical market segments and industry, as embedded Linux solution providers expand pre-integrated vertical product solutions (i.e., carrier-grade Linux, consumer electronics, residential/home gateways, Internet appliances, etc.).

VDC expects this increased growth to be the result of Linux distribution vendors continuing to expand their presence in the Asia-Pacific (China, S. Korea, and Taiwan) and Europe. This will be accomplished by establishing new distribution channels with distributors that help accelerate the penetration and adoption of Linux in target areas such as consumer electronics and telecom/datacom.

In particular, China is viewed as an emerging market opportunity for the use of Linux in embedded applications. Here, hundreds of manufacturers are increasingly focusing on Linux as their platform operating system for high-volume applications, such as smart phones, PDAs, set-top boxes, digital-camera home gateways, wireless access points, and others.

Currently, VDC estimates the consumer electronics vertical market to be the leading source of revenue for embedded Linux providers, followed by telecom/datacom.

Which Linux?
Based on VDC’s end-user survey of embedded developers currently using Linux, the key criteria cited for selecting a GNU/Linux distribution source includes distribution completeness, microprocessor support, quality of development tools, and a source with a reputation for providing a quality product and support. These embedded developers focus on solutions that: are easy to use, work “out of the box,” and include development tools that streamline application development. They’re also looking for a source with experience in providing support for Linux software solutions. Similarly, embedded developers planning to use Linux also concentrate on software development tools, a source with experience in providing support for Linux software solutions, and microprocessor support. However, royalty-free solutions are also key.

Commercial distributions are just a portion of the overall Linux market. In fact, there are many ways to implement Linux in embedded systems, including some that are very much below the view of the industry and general public. OEMs like it that way.

Distribution Categories Description
Commercial Embedded Linux Distributions GNU/Linux Embedded Distributions available on the merchant market (i.e., MontaVista, BlueCat, TimeSys, etc.).
Commercial Linux Distributions GNU/Linux Distributions available on the merchant market (i.e., Red Hat, SuSE, Mandrake, etc.).
Non-commercial Distributions GNU/Linux Distributions available for free download from the Internet (i.e., Debian, Fedora Slackware, uClinux, etc.). However, this category could include freely downloadable distributions from SuSE, Mandrake, etc.
Proprietary (Roll-Your-Own) / Assemble-Your Own GNU/Linux Distributions assembled from mining the Web for open-source components and/or utilizing a freely downloadable distribution as the start point.

The Linux Impact of the Embedded Market
The open-source movement’s impact on the embedded-software market is evidenced by a shift by traditional embedded-software suppliers to adapt and learn from the open-source model in becoming more open. These changes affect the way products are bundled and integrated with services; licensing models plus terms and conditions; source-code availability; and building a collaborative community through developer networks, conferences, startup programs, and free downloads of evaluation software.

Conclusion
In a competitive, fragmented, and crowded embedded OS market, the commercial use of Linux software solutions has gained greater acceptance in the face of a challenged global economy and a downturn in information technology spending. As an embedded-system platform, the use of Linux represents a change in technologies and business models for licensing that have been associated with embedded systems for years. This could very well be the one in which Linux really takes off with broad adoption and loads of actual product shipments.

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