Linux and the Consumer Electronics Industry

While Linux continues to make inroads into the personal computer and network markets — thanks to a heavy push by big firms like IBM — a handful of firms in the consumer electronics (CE) industry are also pushing hard to standardize on the open-source OS.

More than 75 companies now have joined the CE Linux Forum (CELF) — formed almost two years ago by Sony and Matsushita — to promote Linux-based digital CE products. Some of the other CE companies involved in the forum — which officially launched in June of this year — are NEC, Hitachi, Royal Philips, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

CELF’s main activities include defining requirements for emerging technologies, collaborating on development strategies and promoting proliferation of Linux-based digital electronics in the CE industry.

Opportunity To Leverage Linux

Scott Smyers — vice president of the network and systems architecture division at Sony and chairman of the CE Linux Forum’s steering committee — said the founding members in CELF recognized an opportunity to leverage each others’ work concerning Linux.

“Linux is already in use in … consumer electronics products as diverse as cell phones and personal video recorders — and in that regard Linux already has a place in the consumer-electronics space,” Smyers told LinuxInsider.

But Smyers insisted that CELF was not founded to hurt competing OS platforms. “The CE Linux Forum was founded to coordinate activities of companies that are already using or intending to use Linux for consumer electronics products,” he said.

Sharing Technology and Innovations

CACMedia is the newest member of CELF. Ken Nelson, CEO and founder of the company, told LinuxInsider that his firm decided to join the forum to share technology and innovations with other leading CE manufacturers.

“There are some very compelling products and applications being developed … by members that will aid in the stability and success of Linux,” said Nelson. He added that some “incredible” Linux-based offerings are due to hit the market in the fourth quarter of this year.

“It’s very clear from the activity and collaboration we are involved with in the forum that Linux will remain the dominant OS,” Nelson told LinuxInsider. He anticipates that Linux will have an impact on other OS providers, such as Microsoft.

Uphill Battle for Microsoft

“I don’t think that anything hurts Microsoft, but certainly the CE marketplace is an uphill battle for Microsoft, as Linux is the dominant OS used,” he said. “I think [that in light of] the new applications and platforms, such as our media-ready OS … Microsoft may rethink their strategy.”

Nelson is not alone. Lloyd Switzer — director of Stratego, a technology consultancy — also thinks CELF will have an impact on the CE marketplace. Switzer told LinuxInsider that he anticipates CELF will be successful because consumer electronics is a low-margin business. “Thus any cost advantage is valuable, and Linux is free,” he said.

“If an operating system does not easily allow other devices to connect or third-party software to be written for a device, it will lose,” said Switzer. “And the more open a device becomes, the more Linux-like it becomes, so why not just use Linux?”

Learning To Play with Others

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, is not so sure how successful CELF will be at promoting Linux in the CE industry. He told LinuxInsider that it really will depend on how well the group is funded. Plus, he said, it will depend on whether the group remains focused.

“Generally, groups like this take a long while to make any headway and often spend much of their time playing politics between the supporters,” said Enderle. “In this case, the core team is made up of companies like Sony and Toshiba who don’t have the greatest history with cooperating on efforts like this. The heavy lifting involved with getting these firms to work together will be at near impossible levels.”

But Enderle said Linux puts set-top gaming platforms on the short list of systems at risk. He also said the movement could hinder Palm OS, Symbian OS and Windows CE.

Putting Aside Private Interest

“Hardware vendors like Linux a lot because it gives them substantial freedom,” said Enderle. But he added that he wonders whether the vendors will be able to share the fruits of their programming work.

“Sharing is not something device makers do well,” said Enderle.

“This is up to the core vendors. If they can put away their ‘not invented here’ attitude and cooperate with their partners, they could do some really interesting things. If they can’t — which is more likely — this will be another footnote in the ‘what might have been’ coffee-table book.”

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