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The Embedded Systems Conference 1999
San Jose, CA USA September 29th, 1999The Embedded Systems Conference is huge! It is much larger than I had envisioned. Over 60,000 people are gathered here, three times the number we saw for LinuxWorld in August. The ESC fills the entire Convention center, flowing into the hallways and with forty-five exhibits hosted in a tent outside the hall. The classes for the event are being held across the street, in the Civic Center Auditorium.
Speaking of classes, not many of the classes (over 135 of them) mention Linux. One talk on Wearable computers mentions an implementation on Red Hat 5.2, but other references are scarce. Many of the classes, though, mention open source, either by concept or in reference to a specific tool. One talk focused on how to create an open source embedded web server, others mentioned the GNU debugger and Tcl. I didn't actually get a chance to attend any of the talks, so this impression is superficial, from the program, but it was reinforced by a comment from Michael Tiemann, Cygnus founder, "GNU is reaching epoch proportions in this market. If you polled the developers, 50% or more are using GNU tools and will tell you that they love them." That impression was reinforced while walking around the show floor.
My focus, though, was on finding Linux, per se, at the show. Of course, we report on pretty much all free and open source software, but the goal of this particular trip was to take a look at the very beginning of what we have predicted to be an explosion of Linux in the embedded systems market. Listening to random conversations as I crossed the show floor, there are a lot of people in this field who are familiar with or who have worked with Linux already, for a specific project or in a niche market. However, right now we are starting to see the emergence of companies built around Linux and embedded systems.
Who are the major players so far? This is a question that I asked of a variety of people. There was a general concensus on the names: Lineo, Montavista, Cygnus, Zentropics, IGL. Note that neither Zentropics nor IGL had a booth at the show, so unless I run into someone on the floor tomorrow, I only got a glimpse of their involvement third-hand. Announcements from Lineo, Montavista and Cygnus can be found on this week's Linux Weekly News front page.
I got the opportunity to talk to people from all three companies today, Michael Tiemann from Cygnus, Lyle Ball and Tim Bird from Linneo and Jim Ready, from Montavista. They are all extremely excited! If you take a look at each company in turn, it is clear that the embedded systems market is so large that they aren't really in direct competition with each other right now.
Cygnus is not interested in developing a Linux distribution for embedded systems, for example, nor in developing device drivers or other software needed to run embedded Linux on a specific platform. They are tool developers. Their tools are already in wide use in embedded systems. They have a great showcase of some of the projects that are making use of their tools, from unmanned surveillance crafts ("flying cuisinarts", commented Becky Wood DiSorbo) to Nintendo sets to Playstations. Their API is designed to take advantage of their knowledge and expertise, and of course, to point out the availability of eCOS for problems where Linux is too large to be appropriate. That's fine. eCOS is open source as well, using the Cygnus Public License, yet another variant of the MPL, also vetted by the OSS for compliance with open source standards.
Montavista comes into the game with a large amount of experience in embedded systems, now applied to Linux. Jim Ready, co-founder of Hunter Ready systems (the other founder was Colin Hunter, now involved with Transmeta ...), is a long-time advocate of embedded systems. Hunter and Ready developed Vertex, a Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) that has been around since the early days of embedded systems. He has worked with Linux since around 1993 and formed Montavista in March of this year to capitalize on the combination of his backgrounds in embedded systems and Linux. He very much sees his company as an open source company as well. They develop device drivers and other software for their clients, but they do so in open source. Their money primarily comes from subscriptions; the operating system is free, but if you want to call and get support, you need to subscribe. The value they bring is in the engineering work and expertise they can bring to their clients. "Montevista is very knowledgeable about porting complex operating systems to custom hardware, boards we've never seen before. Clients may see problems porting Linux to specific hardware that are not really problems with Linux; they are problems with the hardware and its interaction with Linux. Montavista has proven they can help. Now that they exist, engineers can propose the use of Linux to their management and sbow that expert support for it exists.
Caldera is taking yet a third approach. They are working to provide a software development kit (SDK) so that their clients can build their own custom solutions. Interestingly, they are planning on licensing the toolkit using a per box royalty. This is a great revenue generation model, if you can imagine a very small royalty, but potentially applying across hundreds of thousands of devices. How can they do this with open source software? Obviously the open source parts of their toolkit can be downloaded for free. However, it seems likely that they may keep some of the additions to the toolkit proprietary, where they are entirely developed in-house. Even if they didn't, the royalty is not really based on the software; it is simply a model for paying a support fee. If the product doesn't make it out the door, no money is paid. If it does go out the door and a problem is found, Lineo works with the customer to get the problem fixed. In exchange, they get a small fee back for each product that goes out. This is not a unique model. It is simply unique to see it applied to open source software.
So what do the people in embedded systems think of Linux? Overall, they are pretty excited. Of course, many of them have no intention of moving to Linux, either now or in the near future. They are comfortable with the RTOS and/or tools they are using now. Just as alternatives to Linux on the desktop will continue to exist, so will the 100 or more proprietary RTOSs and tool vendors. However, the embedded systems market is expanding like crazy and, in that expansion, the opportunity for new clients to look at Linux and open source software for solutions is growing. It offers a lot of advantages. Beyond the technical merits of open source, which seem relatively undisputed, there is an opportunity for embedded systems engineers, who, up until now, have been highly isolated in their rather unique development world, to join the excitement of the Linux community. They can actually run the same operating system at home, at the office and on their development hardware! They can get the advantages of advances in Linux immediately, rather than waiting months until such advances get ported to their particular vendor system. The groundswell is currently small, but it is growing.
The difference I expect to see a year from now, between this conference and the Embedded Systems Conference 2000, is huge. We will go from a few players, not particularly competing for the same customers, to many players and a larger amount of competition. Linux is the right fit for a large portion of this market and projects like the Linux Router Project, uCLinux and RT-Linux will expand its ability to fit the various niches. In the meantime, open source software is simply winning, demonstrating its effectiveness in the work of the developers that are using it.
Next year, the first Linux Pavilion at the Embedded Systems Conference? Everyone I talked to certainly hoped so. In a way, it was too bad that there wasn't one this year, however small. As Don Malek, from NETx4, LLC, who is working with Embedded Planet on Linux projects commented, the greatest thing coming out of this show for Linux is how it has brought key players together. Expect to see some exciting repercussions in the coming months as a result.
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