Consumer Electronics: Closing In on Open Source

Chances are that one or more of your consumer products uses the Linux operating system. In order to find out, you’ll have to look at the fine print. Manufacturers do not openly advertise with labels announcing “Linux Inside.”

Linux has steadily become the operating system of choice by manufacturers of toys, video and telephone equipment, along with many things that involve hand-held devices and remote controls. The trend for using Linux began around 2002 and is gathering momentum, according to several companies that develop Linux adaptations for product uses.

“Today, we see Linux in products from watches to supercomputers,” Oren Teich, product manager for open source platform developer Monta Vista Technology, told LinuxInsider. “Linux is a great operating system feature-wise. It has a better technical implementation than other operating systems. That’s why manufacturers are going to Linux more than any other OS solution.”

Linux used to mean the entire set of software and add-ons needed to get a computer up and running, according to Teich. That is what most people still think when they hear that a product is Linux powered.

However, the Linux OS can be used in a scaled-down version in order to run a user interface designed to better accommodate consumer products, he said. The user navigates by pressing buttons on a control panel. Monta Vista offers its own Embedded Linux version for commercial deployment in consumer products.

High Scalability

“Linux is a very amorphous OS. It can be a different OS on a different product,” Teich claimed. “We spend a lot of time modifying the code for scalability.”

Linux has a remarkable ability to be adapted and scaled to specific purposes, he said. Some vendors have their own software developers to do this. Other vendors use Linux specialty companies to develop whatever is needed.

“The ability to do this is extremely unique to Linux,” noted Teich. “We can use all custom trappings available in Linux to do anything we want in one product since there is no need for compatibility with other hardware.”

Vendors now start with the Linux kernel and, depending on the intended use in the particular product, they modify the kernel to run what they need, he added.

OS Options

Product developers are quick to point out that Linux is often the best choice available, but not the only choice. Microsoft touts its Windows Mobile and WinCE versions as viable portable operating systems for consumer products. The Wind River appliance platform is also available.

Of course, cost factors heavily into consumer product development. Unlike other options, the Linux OS is free. The inherent costs in using it involve fees for user support of a particular distribution or the costs of scaling the Linux kernel to a particular consumer product.

“You can tailor the Linux kernel to do anything that is needed with no royalties payments,” said Philip Pokorny, director of field engineering at open source software and hardware firm Penguin Computing.

Most times consumers cannot tell a product is running Linux.

“Other vendors are attracted to the open source software. It levels the playing field,” offered Dr. James Bottomley, CTO for SteelEye Technology, a company that develops clustering, data replication and disaster recovery software.

Wind River is both a good example of operating system alternatives for consumer products as well as a good example of Linux’s flexibility, according to Bottomley. Wind River specializes in device software optimization (DSO) by enabling companies to develop, run and manage device software. The software developer markets its own Wind River platform and also develops services around Linux.

Bottomley cited TiVo and Cisco Systems as other examples of the trend toward Emedded Linux operating systems.

“TiVo built its own software system around Linux. Cisco built onto Linux as well,” he said.

Embedded Linux Movement

Embedded Linux is an adapted Linux OS using the Linux kernel that requires as little as 2MB of memory to run in a consumer product. Within the computing industry, the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC) is working to foster the use of Embedded Linux. Consortium membership includes IBM, Intel, LynuxWorks, Motorola, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens and Sony.

To demonstrate the scalability of the Embedded Linux OS, Bottomley compared the Linux movement in consumer products to the different ways of measuring a piece of string. Each consumer electronics product has its own set of kernel patches, he emphasized.

“What is starting to accelerate is the amount of people working in the embedded market. This trend will continue,” said Bottomley.

Monta Vista, like other Linux product makers, contributes to the development of Linux ad-ons that become standard in the industry, noted Teich.

“We try to get everybody in a particular product industry to use the same set of changes. Then these modifications become standard,” he explained.

Linux Inside

When Pokorny recently moved into his new home, he discovered that controls for the house’s centralized appliance system ran on Linux. He found that reference in the fine print of the instructional manual to the control panel that the system runs on an ARM processor with the Linux kernel.

Most wireless gateways have Linux kernels in them as well, he said, adding that they are an easy and low-cost solution.

Pokorny noted that Linux meets the usability standards regardless of the application. For instance, when using Linux in business, it is better to run a standard version like Red Hat so everything is working. All of the hardware support is already provided.

In the embedded space, manufacturers need an operating system to control everything in the box. Embedded Linux does just that. In consumer devices, products need a replacement for a real-time operating system. Linux adapts well to real-time environments.

“We find Linux to be very customizable,” concluded Pokorny.

Product Rundown

According to Teich, WiFi access points all use Linux. For instance, Linksys has a Linux model — WRT54GL. You can usually spot the Linux product because the model number will have an L as part of its designation, he said.

Other examples of Linux inside consumer products, Teich said, are in every Sony, Hitachi and Panasonic HD television and their remote controls. Samsung Electronics uses Linux and a DivX-accelerated MIPS-based SoC (system-on-chip) in its portable digital TVs.

“Linux use in these types of products is widely deployed,” stressed Teich.

Linux is also used by video projector companies, especially in those products that have the WiFi computer features. Similarly, desktop speaker phones use Linux, he noted.

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