It seems as if Linux advocates have been waiting an eternity for the open-source OS to break through in a big way with consumers. But after years of wondering when and how Linux would finally make a significant incursion into the consumer computer market, it seems as if this most populist of operating systems has finally found its Trojan Horse: The handheld PDA.
This year, a handful of manufacturers and software developers, including Sharp, Red Hat, Compaq, will attempt to proselytize consumers to the glories of Linux by peddling PDA's that pack the pragmatic functionality of Palm and its many imitators but which contain far more processing power and versatility than popular pocket PC's like Casio's Cassiopeia and Sony's CLIE.
Sharp's Zaurus SL-5500, the most impressive product of the emerging crop, is a powerful mobile tool for professional consumers and corporate users alike. The Zaurus has it all: A high resolution color reflective screen, a QWERTY keyboard with a sliding cover, dual expansion with both Compact Flash and Secure Digital slots, the uber-powerful Intel StrongARM 206MHz processor, 64MB of standard memory, and an MP3 and MPEG1 multimedia player. The Zaurus' Linux OS allows the PDA to run applications written in Java; any Java application written on another computer will run on the Zaurus, regardless of its operating system.
The two expansion slots for Secure Digital and Compact Flash cards - slots which are usually found on high-end digital cameras and laptops -- opens up a world of possibility. Zaurus owners can have multiple applications running at the same time - one can snap photos with a digital camera attachment, then download the shots to your desktop with a handheld modem adapter. Wisely, Sharp has released a beta version of the Zaurus for developers; the commercial version of the PDA won't be available until later this year.
"There's no preconceived notion as to how applications should be written," says developer Shane Nay, who helped develop the VR3 PDA, one of the earliest Linux PDA's, for Irvine, Ca-based company Agenda. "The level of modification that a company can utilize is much greater." Linux also allows smaller companies to get into the PDA game and tussle with giants like HP, Sharp and Palm. With no licensing fees to worry about, and with the source code readily available for anyone to tinker, Linux effectively democratizes handheld technology.
All of which begs the question: Do consumers need or want this much versatility on their hand-helds? Given the higher price point of these powerful tools, is it all worth it? Certainly Bruce Perens thinks so. One of Linux's most public cheerleaders and the newly hired point-person for Hewlett Packard's Linux initiative, Perens foresees a not-too-distant future in which Linux-enabled PDA's morph into ubiquitous, multi-purpose tools for home and office.
"The palmtop environment is changing," says Perens. "It used to be about one thing only - how small can you get your OS and application? Now we have pocket PC's with 64M RAM, so we can breathe a lot easier about size and concentrate on functionality." According to Perens, the GNU/Linux tool set is the best way to fly because it offers all of the features of a power PC, yet it can already run apps that don't yet exist for desktops, such as speaker-independent speech recognition with a 100,000 word vocabulary and the best speech synthesis on the market.
Speech is important!," says Perens. "It's the application that will drive palmtop hardware to much higher power in the future. It solves our I/O problem, and will allow us to spurn the GUI most of the time, but the high-end palmtops we have today are just barely capable of supporting speech recognition."
Perens foresees a time when the palmtop will be an "invisible friend," something that you talk to rather than type in commands. In order to support such a system, "we need processors like the ARM that are engineered to offer the most CPU power per miliwatt, and Linux runs great on that," says Perens.
But perhaps Linux's most obvious benefit, from a developer's standpoint, is that it's the anti-Windows OS, which means there's less capital outlay and fewer headaches. Software royalties for Windows CE can be prohibitive, but Linux is free, stable, and has great multi-tasking capabilities. "The really important factor is control," says Perens. "As a hardware vendor, it's really bad to have a software vendor that can call all the shots for your business. Try to get (Microsoft) to port a new CPU, for example, and you'll find that very expensive in contrast to Linux. With Linux, you set the development direction, because you have the power to change any part of the system."
Ultimately, with the proper broadband capabilities, Linux PDA's will be to handle anything that come their way, whether its complex, graphics-rich web pages, word processing files, .PDF files - the complete Babel of computer language. "Linux PDA's can handle and sort of attachment that our desktops handle," says Perens. "We are driving higher-end networking utilities because of the multi-tasking and the availability of command-line tools and servers from the desktop that are compact and can be easily wrapped in a GUI."
Moving in on Pocket PC
A handful of enterprising Linux programmers in Massachusetts have caught some of the subversive, anything-goes spirit of Linux, re-imagining the way handheld computers can work in the process. By loading an open-source OS "backpack" unit onto Compaq's iPaq handheld computer, they've created a truly forward-thinking product. This Linux cabal, who conducted their work under the auspices of the Compaq research laboratory in Cambridge, developed a Linux system that fits on a 32-megabyte memory chip, thereby turning the iPaq palmtop into what is essentially a downsized desktop. Text editing, games, networking, sound recording and playback - it's all happening on the Linux-modified iPaq.
This beefed-up version of the iPaq is not yet commercially available, and until the smoke clears from the Compaq-HP merger, there's no telling when it will launch. Compaq has already spent a small fortune trying to develop a user-friendly Linux PDA; According to Shane Nay, the modified iPaq "has been about seven years in the making." Fortunately for Compaq, it has the brain trust in place to jury-rig the product to its heart's content.
Regardless of any company's size, there are numerous obstacles to overcome when trying to design Linux PDA's, not the least of which is the specialized nature of Linux programming itself. There are simply not enough Linux programmers to go around for every manufacturer, and even monoliths like Sharp are forced to either recruit from the outside or outsource its Linux development altogether. That can result in a prohibitive capital outlay for a product that is supposed to cut costs. "Right now, the talent pool is very small relative to the kinds of grand plans people have," observes Shane Nay. "The upshot is that even the earliest players have been very, very late to market."
Indeed, Agenda's Linux PDA is currently on hold, as is the company itself, which is experiencing an equity crunch; Compaq's iPaq PDA is already months behind schedule. HP currently has no plans to launch a Linux PDA. "I'm teaching Hewlett Packard how to be a good open-source citizen so it can get cooperation from the community," says Perens, who is HP's senior strategist for Linux and open source. "What I'm doing for future releases is to get people here to support Linux developers more."
Servers, desktops, now handhelds
Perens is optimistic that Linux will eventually overtake Palm's WinCE-based OS as the industry standard, if only for its ability to create a graphics-rich multi-media platform for palmtops. "Let's face it: WinCE is an embedded environment stripped down in its capabilities," says Perens. "It can't do what Linux already can do. It has tremendous video capabilities, and it can run all kinds of wireless applications."
For Perens, Linux palmtops will never achieve critical mass until 3G becomes the lingua franca for wireless technology in the States. That's when Linux will truly flex its processing muscle, providing countless applications for both B2B and P2P interaction. "People aren't looking for a Windows environment on their palmtops, they want to compose spread sheets and email them," says Perens. "Embedded email, embedded web browsers -- the whole point is mobile connectivity, seeing the customer in the field having access to all of your infrastructure."
For Perens, mobile Linux will ring the death-knell for all propriety systems, and Windows be damned. "Proprietary applications will have to far exceed the standard of free software, or the customer won't be interested," he says. "The hardware manufacturers will mostly try to differentiate themselves with new hardware features or lower hardware cost. So, we'll see better and cheaper palmtop platforms.
Marc Weingarten is an LA-based writer whose work appears in Business 2.0, The Los Angeles Times, Smart Business, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Vibe and San Francisco magazine.