Will Linux find a home in handhelds?
By Gerald Wee,
(IDG) -- Linux is making inroads into the PDA market with a number of handheld companies announcing support for the open source operating system. Lineo, which supplies the operating environment for a number of mobile devices, is upbeat about both its and the open source operating system's prospects in the handheld devices space.
While new to a market which already has established giants Palm and Microsoft operating systems battling it out for market share, Ishrat Hakim, Lineo's vice president Asia-Pacific sales and corporate development, believes Linux has the ability to hold its own in this ultra-competitive arena.
This confidence is in spite of research from Gartner noting that the worldwide Linux PDA market share in 2001 represented a mere 0.2 percent of the 13.11 million units shipped in total.
According to Hakim, the key competitive advantage of Linux is not so much its cost -- or lack thereof -- but its flexibility.
"The open source operating environment allows us to innovate and create products quickly so as to address time to market issues for vendors like Sharp," he says.
Lineo, which specializes in embedded Linux applications, has put together a suite of software interfaces specifically for the palmtop environment. Called Embedix Plus PDA, the product comprises the Linux operating system, Insignia Java virtual machine, Qtopia personal information management software, Opera browser, text editor, and an assortment of other utilities and multimedia tools.
Hakim notes that most Linux companies just provide operating systems, tools, and services which while necessary, it is not sufficient for survival.
"Products have to be more than just the Linux kernel," says Hakim.
Another important competitive advantage that Linux has over its competitors is cost. According to Lineo, the price of its software operating environment is about one third to half the price of Pocket PC.
This has provided a compelling enough advantage for Sharp to announce a Linux-based handheld device -- the Zaurus SL-5500.
In Singapore, a company called Jesons Infomart is also developing a PDA called Kaii which runs on Linux.
"We wanted to make a PDA with the high-end features, but at an affordable cost," says Devesh R. Agarwal, managing director of Jesons Infomart.
Although he declines to name them, Hakim says that there are more hardware vendors -- including some very recognizable brands -- boarding the Linux bandwagon with designs for smart phones and PDAs.
However, much still needs to be done for Linux to be a major force in the handheld arena.
One issue which has to be addressed is the availability of third party software. Palm already has over 10,000 programs available, while PocketPC software also number in the thousands.
The sheer number of developers is reason for Lillian Tay, senior analyst, Asia-Pacific hardware platforms, Gartner, to believe Linux on the PDA will only play niche roles.
"The dominant Palm and Windows CE operating system vendors have been very aggressive in soliciting licensees," she says.
This leaves a very small percentage for Linux and developers tend to go with the OS that gives the returns on development, she adds.
The key barrier, perhaps is the mindset of the IT industry.
"We still have some way to go in educating users as to the benefits of open source code," says Hakim.
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