The theme of this year's Embedded
Linux Conference (ELC) is "Ubiquity" and Dirk Hohndel opened the conference
with a keynote on just that topic. Hohndel, Intel's chief Linux and open
source technologist, looked at how widespread Linux is in consumer
electronics, but also how many other, far less obvious devices it has been
embedded into. In addition, he
discussed some of the problems caused by vendors and manufacturers not
engaging with the
community and how that can lead to suboptimal devices; he also reviewed
the value proposition of Linux, pointing out that the "zero-cost" is not zero
and even if it were, that's not where Linux's strengths lie.
Tim Bird, who organized the conference for the CE Linux Forum (CELF), introduced
Hohndel by calling him "something of a legend in the open source
community" for his work in the community over the last 15 years or
more. Bird recalled some advice Hohndel had given him some years ago that
the secret to having an organization that works well with open source is to
keep everything open. It seems tautological, but that is exactly what Bird
and CELF have done with great success. CELF keeps all of its information
available to everyone, not just members, and welcomes the participation of
the community. In large part, that came straight out of Hohndel's advice.
Hohndel opened his presentation by contrasting the ELC participants with
those that had attended his talk at the Open Source Business Conference
(OSBC) earlier this year. Based on the traditional show of hands, he noted
that there were far fewer lawyers and
far more people who had used Linux at ELC than at OSBC. But part of the
point he was making is that even though the folks at OSBC didn't think they
were using Linux, they almost certainly are—and on a daily basis.
He noted that based on his title, "Ubiquitous Linux", and the
dictionary definition, he could give the shortest keynote on record:
"Linux is everywhere, thank you very much." He pointed out
that servers were the first commercial success for Linux, but were not
really the purpose for which Linux was created. Linus Torvalds's lack of a
was what really spawned Linux. Now, though, you can hardly do anything on
the Internet without bumping into Linux.
If you want to search (Google), buy a book (Amazon), book a flight, trade
NASDAQ stocks, or participate in an auction (eBay), you are dealing with
Linux. In fact, Hohndel says, "if you can spend five minutes on the
Internet and do not run Linux, you're a genius". He asked for a
show of hands to see how many Eee PC owners there were in the audience; he was
disappointed to only see about seven. He claimed that even the lawyers at
OSBC had more of these systems. But computers are
boring, Hohndel says, everyone knows Linux runs on computers.
With about three minutes invested in a Google search, Hohndel was able to
come up with 22 phone vendors with a Linux phone before he stopped
looking. Most of those vendors are in Asia and he was not sure why the US
was "behind the curve". Part of it is that vendors don't talk
about Linux on their phones, he said. Half of the Motorola Razr phones run
Linux, but you wouldn't know that based on the marketing.
He went on to list some of the more common, even well-known, Linux devices
including VoIP phones, digital video recorders, camcorders, digital
cameras, set top boxes, network attached storage (NAS) controllers, and so
on. GPS devices run Linux as well: "Microsoft was kind enough to
point that out to us". He did lament the poor support of standards
in phone browsers, though, pointing out that there is a full Linux system
underneath, so it should be relatively easy to produce a browser that runs
complaint was a bit of a preview of a theme he would come to later: if the
companies would engage with the community, they would get that browser for
Hohndel then started listing things that run Linux but are far less known,
starting with MRI and CAT scan medical devices. Vehicles of all types use
Linux in their avionics (airplanes), in-vehicle entertainment systems (planes,
trains, and cars), repair centers (cars). He noted that for redundancy
purposes, the avionics vendor's system had a matching implementation in
Windows, which wasn't necessarily very comforting to Hohndel.
He noted that he had written kernel code along the way and wasn't
completely comfortable with that code running planes he flies on either.
Hohndel challenged the audience to see how long they could go without
interacting with a Linux system, listing the kinds of things one would have
to do without. He also related a conversation he had with an executive
from a large, unnamed, software company (perhaps located in the Pacific
Northwest) who claimed he never used Linux. By
the end of the conversation, they had come up with a dozen different Linux
systems he used on a daily basis. "I don't think the general public
realizes how much of this scary stuff they have around them," he
He then turned to the question of why Linux is everywhere. He noted that
"because it's free" is the "worst possible
answer" but this supposed zero cost is an answer that is frequently
given by other audiences of his
talks. "If you are using Linux because it's free, you are in for a
very rude awakening".
Intel has hundreds of Linux developers, he said, but "we didn't get
the memo, we actually pay these guys". He started listing some of
the costs associated with using Linux: hardware likely doesn't come with
Linux drivers, or the drivers only work with a different version of the
kernel than the one needed to get other kernel features necessary to the
product, etc. And "then you talk to your lawyers" about
licenses and such. None of that is free.
The strength of Linux is that if you run into a problem, you can solve it
yourself or hire someone to do it for you. He contrasted that with a
proprietary solution where you pay $20,000 up front and some small per-unit
royalty, which might actually be cheaper, at least on paper, but if there
is a problem, you have no leverage with the vendor. How can you meet your
market window when you have no way to fix problems that you encounter, he
Choosing Linux is about customizability as well as security, Hohndel says.
You can control the footprint of the system because you have the source
code and can customize it as needed. Anyone who says they are going with
Linux because of zero cost have proven to Hohndel that they don't
understand what you can do with Linux.
This leads to a problem with the current crop of consumer devices that run
Linux: they don't take advantage of the strengths of the OS. Hohndel
thinks that most vendors using Linux in embedded devices are doing it
wrong. They are focused on the price to the exclusion of building a
community around the device. They don't make any money on a device they
have already sold, so they focus on the next device and ignore the idea
that just by opening things up, they could build a community that would
help them sell that next device.
Hohndel said that being open to the community will reap many benefits. New
features and functionality will be added by others to "do things you
never thought possible". He mentioned Linksys wireless routers and
the DD-WRT and OpenWRT communities that have sprung up around them.
Linksys got many things wrong in the early going, but eventually turned
that around. Companies need to recognize that there many more smart
people outside of their company.
Intel is trying to lead by example, to some extent, with its Moblin
efforts. Intel has turned the "stewardship" over to the Linux
Foundation, but it is in no way abandoning it. According to Hohndel,
engineers have been added to Moblin and the company would like to see what
else the community can do with it. There are lots of things Intel hasn't
thought of, "but the community will, and we hope they do."
Hohndel's talk didn't cover too much in the way of new ground—much of
what he said has been bandied about before—but he tied the ubiquity
of Linux and the foot-dragging of vendors with respect to the community in
an interesting way. For a number of years, folks have been talking about
ways to get Linux into more devices of various sorts; that battle has been
won to a large extent. The next step is to bring the device manufacturers
into the community; that battle has only recently started. One senses that
Linux and the community will win that one as well.
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