Embedded Linux may be facing a hot new rival for the hearts and minds of Internet appliance manufacturers and software developers.
Called Inferno, it is an operating system tailored for small network devices such as Web phones where its backers claim it out-Linuxes Linux.
Inferno was born in Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs and its creators include Dennis Ritchie of C language and Unix fame.
While its pedigree gives Inferno instant commercial credibility, the high fees Lucent charged for access to source code after rolling it out in 1997 dampened the enthusiasm of device manufacturers and application developers.
Two weeks ago, privately-held UK company Vita Nuova radically rewrote those rules by launching Inferno onto the world market as an open source code offering.
Mimicking the Linux marketing model will clear the way for Inferno's superior technical strengths to assert themselves, Vita Nuova believes.
Corporate subscribers will pay $US1000 for a licence that includes all Inferno source code plus ports to a wide range of architectures. Personal subscriptions cost $US300. No runtime fees are charged and all subscribers can distribute and sell binary copies of Inferno or modified versions without paying royalties.
Vita Nuova chief executive Michael Jeffrey hopes such open source policies will mean "any hurdles in negotiations with device and consumer electronics manufacturers have disappeared entirely".
Like Red Hat in the Linux world, Vita Nuova plans to make its money from technical services and support as well as subscriptions.
"Asia is a very important area for us because it has so many small to medium device manufacturers who are quite open to new and innovative ideas - sometimes more so than similar companies in the US and Europe," Jeffrey said.
Two manufacturers of Web phone products - one in South Korea, the other in Taiwan - have already signed up for Inferno, he said. Negotiations are under way with a Japanese company interested in acting as an agent or distributor. Vita Nuova has acquired its first two Australian subscribers although no Australian distribution discussions have been initiated.
Inferno is an operating system, language and application development environment tailored for distributed applications running on small network devices and Internet appliances. It includes a sophisticated virtual machine which gives applications developed in Inferno's language, Limbo, the same write once, run anywhere' capability as Java.
In addition to zero distribution royalties, Inferno promises developers a cleaner, swifter metaphor than Linux for building distributed applications.