Honey, I Shrunk the Linux

SAN FRANCISCO (08/09/2000) - Forget the argument about spreading Linux on desktops. IBM Corp. is squeezing the open-source operating system down to run on a wristwatch that would one day be able to display e-mail messages, look up stock quotes, locate phone numbers and automatically dial them on one's cell phone.

But don't expect to find the Linux wristwatch in stores anytime soon. The prototype that IBM will unveil next week at LinuxWorld in San Jose, Calif., is still a few years away from the consumer market.

"Right now, the battery lasts only two to four hours. We want to extend it to several months," says Ambuj Goyal, VP of services and software and head of computer science at IBM Research (ACRI) in Yorktown, N.Y. "It will take us several years of research to be able to do that."

Right now the watch is a bit bulky - about 2 inches by 2 inches and almost a half-inch thick - but is targeted to be "as small and as a sleek-looking as a woman's watch," Goyal says. It sports an ARM processor, has 8MB each of flash memory and of dynamic RAM, a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery and a touch-sensitive display.

Beyond telling time, the prototype has a to-do list, phone numbers, a condensed calendar, and the ability to store an image. IBM is working on enabling the gadget to understand voice commands, and eventually, the wristwatch would be able to download applications from a desktop and connect to the Internet and other devices through infrared.

The move is part of IBM's plans to support and extend Linux on a variety of platforms. The company's servers, mainframes and ThinkPads run Linux. Now IBM is "stretching Linux" to fit on small wearable devices as well as to work with symmetric multiprocessing, clustering and even in Teraflop supercomputers, according to Goyal.

IBM would not make the wristwatches itself, but would partner with watch companies or device manufacturers. Using open-source code, which is freely modifiable, means that developers are likely to create additional applications for it, Goyal said. "Linux gives me the freedom for innovation," he adds. "Just imagine a world where I have to license an operating system. It would hobble my research effort."

The flexibility of open-source software has proponents positioning Linux as an ideal operating system for the emerging embedded market for appliances and devices with low-power consumption and limited storage.

Lineo is working on developing a Linux-based operating system for a range of devices such as watches, digital cameras, cell phones and handhelds. The company is partnering with Motorola, Hitachi, Samsung, National Semiconductor (NSM) and AMD, among others, said Brad Christensen, director of product marketing at Lineo. Red Hat (RHAT) and Ericsson are working together on a Linux-based screen phone. Coollogic is developing a Linux-based set-top, and Compaq has announced plans to develop a Linux-based handheld.

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