In the cellphone world, Linux has been caught uncomfortably between two worlds. It is not as high level as SymbianOS or Windows Mobile, requiring significant work by handset makers to provide a full application downloading platform; but it lacks the full real time support of the proprietary, native cellphone operating systems. Now MontaVista Software, the main distributor of phone-specific Linux, claims to have overcome the latter problem, potentially making the open source OS a mainstream platform for midrange and low end cellphones, as well as many other embedded devices.
MontaVista has carved out a niche in Linux handsets and other products such as DVD players but has been excluded from other embedded devices that require a guarantee, and rapid response time, or 'hard real time', which have been the territory of proprietary systems such as Wind River. In the mobile world, applications requiring hard real time include audio and video streaming and GPS signal processing.
MontaVista programmer Sven-Thorsten Dietrich said these type of systems need guaranteed task level response "in the tens to hundreds of microseconds range, which is not achievable with current 2.6 Linux technology".
However, there is hostility to incorporating MontaVista's breakthrough into the main Linux kernel. Linux creator Linus Torvalds said "almost nobody wants hard real time" and that it makes the OS more complex and, for conventional applications, less responsive.
James Ready, CEO of California-based MontaVista, said: "With hard real time capabilities, Linux is set to assume the role of a universal platform."
He believes that real time support will push Linux into the high growth area of midrange featurephones, which typically have a native real time OS running on a dedicated baseband. The need for this can be eliminated by Linux as well as helping the featurephones move up the food chain, to get a little closer to SymbianOS and Windows models. Ready also points out that only Linux can be used end-to-end, to run the network as well as the devices.
MontaVista has formed an open source project around its new technology. But hard on its heels will be the leading real time OS vendor, Wind River, which rejected Linux for many years but has now formed a partnership with Linux distributor Red Hat.
MontaVista was founded in 1999 by Ready, and is backed by Alloy Ventures, China Development Industrial Bank, RRE Ventures, US Venture Partners, WR Hambrecht, as well as IBM, Infineon Ventures, Intel Capital, Panasonic (Matsushita), Samsung Ventures America, Siemens Venture Capital, Sony, Toshiba America and Yamaha Corporation.
Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch
Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.