This story was originally published on Sept. 26, 2008, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.
OK. You’ve heard of Linux. It’s another operating system for acomputer. But why use it when you can choose between Windows and Macs?Unless you run business-class servers, Linux isn’t really somethingconsumers really need to hear about, right?
Well, if that’s what you think Linux is, you couldn’t be further from the truth. Look around you. Linux is everywhere, but you may not know it. However, you’ll have to look at the fine print to be sure, because manufacturers usually don’t openly advertise with labels announcing “Linux Inside.”
For instance, Linux probably drives your HDTV and the set-top box. Linux is now regarded as the de facto operating system of choice by many manufacturers of electronic toys and video and telephone equipment, along with many things that involve hand-held devices and remote controls.
“The only way to find that Linux is inside is to look for the fineprint in product materials. That’s where you might find reference toLinux. No manufacturer tends to tell consumers that,” Jim Ready,founder and CTO of MontaVista Software, told LinuxInsider.
Why So Secret?
When Intel started to design its processor chips for consumer-gradecomputers, it went with a marketing strategy to display its existence on alabel that would be slapped onto the computer’s case. Before that, few consumers knew what Intel was. But hawking the Linux engineon consumer products today is seen as counter-productive. Simply put, productmakers want their own brand recognition.
Linux gives consumer product manufacturers a stable operating systemwith no royalty overhead and no ownership hassles. Not having to caterto a controlling corporate entity gives manufacturers tremendousmarketing advantage.
“Linux uses open protocols exclusively. There are no proprietaryvendor protocols that try to lock you into certain vendors andproducts. Monopolies do not exist in the Linux world,” Juan PabloRoig, Unix Specialist at Globant, told LinuxInsider.
Linux is often the go-to guy for silent operating systems in the manufacturing industry. It owes its success there to its solid reliability and its ability to scale and innovate. Why Linux? It’s a very functional operating system that can be customized and controlled without having to ask permission from on high.
“No small part of the Linux phenomenon is being in control and a goodalternative to Microsoft,” offered Ready.
Linux provides manufacturers with another marketing trait bothMicrosoft and Apple cannot provide. Linux was written by programmerswho created the code for other programmers, rather than for a corporatesystem. To a large degree, this is why Linux is one of the more stableoperating systems available today. The programmers themselves, not executives considering a corporate or business angle, were the only people who decided what went into the system, according to Roig.
“The fact that the source code for Windows and other systems is a closely guarded secret keeps people from learning from it. It means that problems which are technically easy to fix cannot be fixed by any user with the technical expertise. Everyone must wait until Microsoft publishes a patch. In summary, the availability of source code is a particularly useful thing for users,” explained Roig.
In the earliest days of computing, the first-generation OSes,including mainframes, had no memory protection. Very quickly, buildingin memory protection became a fundamental goal for developers, notedReady.
“Linux doesn’t have that problem. It’s Unix and very functional,” he said.
In essence, the benefits of a worldwide open source operating systemis much more attractive to manufacturers of consumer products.Typically, Linux wins on four scores.
“Electronics companies are attracted to Linux for a variety ofreasons,” Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for marketresearch and analysis firm The NPD Group, told LinuxInsider. “First, there are no licensing royalties to pay. The operatingsystem is also powerful and stable and can support a wide range ofapplications. They can also tailor it to their needs and have completeflexibility with the user interface so they can differentiate theirproducts.”
Also, there is a tremendous pool of developers around the world,particularly in Asia, who are comfortable with Linux and otheropen source technologies, he said.
Three other reasons make Linux the choice of product makers. Linux ischeap to run, cheap to modularize, and easy to secure.
“Since Linux is open source, you can literally have an army ofdevelopers take care of most of the maintenance, while you can takecare of your module only. When you make changes to the core portion ofthe Linux code, you can always propose that your changes be includedin the original source code. You then no longer need to have someonemaintain that code, since others can do it,” Laurent Duperval ofConsultation Laurent Duperval told LinuxInsider.
In addition, since the code is open, manufacturers have control overwhich parts they want to include in their components. This allows themto easily reduce the size of the code footprint, he explained.
“Most security issues are quickly fixed and made available to thegeneral public. You don’t always have to wait for a vendor-approvedpatch before correcting any problems you may have. This helps speed upyour time to market,” he said.
Turn to many of the major mobile phone makers to find hard-core use ofLinux. But the Linux legacy does not end with pocket phoneconversations. You’ll find Linux at the heart of smart devices suchas portable media players, cameras and most handheld devices.Even dashboard-mounted GPS systems share a Linux heritage.
We at LinuxInsider scoured the Internet for details of products thatrun on Linux. Here is a brief inventory listing of what we found.
‘Netting’ the Web
Perhaps the latest craze is the use of Linux in netbooks — ultra-smallportable computers that fill a gap between smartphones and notebookcomputers. Many of these tiny laptops are nurtured with Intel’s low-energyAtom processor.
The Asus EEE PC can be had with Linux, as can offerings from Dell or LG, among others. Dell’s Inspiron Mini 9 offers upto 1GB SDRAM, an 8.9-inch, 1024 x 600 display, three USB ports,Ethernet, a 4 GB to 16 GB solid-state drive, and 2 GB of free onlinestorage. LG’s X110 netbook boasts a 10-inch, 1024 x 600 display, 1 GBRAM, an 80 GB or 120 GB hard drive, 802.11b/g, and an Ethernet port. Some of these netbooks are available with Windows XP, as well.
In the Spring, SanDisk released the Sansa e200 with Podzilla. This is aflash-based MP3 player that, when tweaked, can run Podzilla. Thiscreative device is based on the open source media player stack firstdeveloped by the iPod Linux project.
Also last spring, Slacker introduced a personal music player thatconnected to WiFi hotspots. Slacker also brought consumers aWeb-based Personal Radio browser.
Fedora Linux runs Cirgon’s Encore Media Server, which supports 1080iHD resolution. The hard drive options include 320 GB, 500 GB and 750 GBvarieties to control and manage music, photos andvideo for use with an HD-based home theater system.
The Linux-based Netflix Player set-top box lets subscribers streamNetflix movies on demand via a broadband Internet connection.
Control4’s Home Controller HC-500 meshes with various home theaterappliances. These include multi-room music access, lighting,thermostats and security systems that are Linux-driven.
We think one of the most impressive uses of Linux in a consumerproduct is the Cool-Idea Technology Cool-Karaoke. This is anopen source MP3, video and Karaoke player equipped with a 400MHzARM920t processor, 4GB of flash and a 320×240 display. It includes afree downloadable Linux toolchain and source code. Use its numeroushardware mixers to improve synchronization with recorded music.
And why have snapshots but no music? The Samsung i70 PMP does it bothin one package. This digital camera and personal media player is builton a MontaVista Linux platform and has a 7.2-megapixel resolution witha 3x optical zoom and Samsung’s ASR (Advanced Shake Reduction)technology.