In a world where cars, gadgets and even household appliances are becoming smarter and connected to networks, software inside them that previously went unnoticed is attracting increased attention.
In San Francisco this week, vendors building software and hardware for these so-called "embedded" systems -- a broadening market that includes handheld computers, set-top boxes, in-car computers and industrial automation equipment -- will meet at the Embedded Systems Conference to discuss their latest products and technologies.
Making a concerted appeal to the crowd will be a number of Linux software companies who hope the open source operating system can win over developers who historically have turned to software designed in house, or by companies such as Wind River Systems Inc., which makes a popular operating system for embedded devices.
As the millions of smart computing devices in the world turn into billions, analysts say operating systems designed for particular devices are losing ground to general-purpose software that can be adapted more easily for use in different types of products.
Waiting behind the flood gates are two key players looking to stake out the market: Microsoft Corp., which has retooled versions of its Windows operating system for a wide range of embedded devices; and various Linux hopefuls who are building implementations of the freely-available operating system to power everything from network routers to cell phones.
For consumer products like wireless PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smart phones, Linux is being touted as a viable operating system because it is well suited for devices that have limited available memory. Linux also consumes less power than some other operating systems and developers have the flexibility of sharing Linux software code, said Stacey Quandt, an analyst for Giga Information Group Inc.
"It's not a mature market so there's a lot of potential for Linux to make inroads," she said.
One issue may stand in the way of its widespread use in embedded systems, however. Of the various companies developing embedded Linux operating systems, such as Lineo Inc., LynuxWorks Inc., MonteVista Software Inc. TimeSys Corp. and FSM Labs Inc., most build their respective operating systems in ways that make their applications incompatible, analysts and vendors said.
To allow an application written for one vendors' operating system to run on that of another vendor, an industry group will unveil plans Tuesday to create a standard for embedded Linux systems. The Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC), an industry group with more than 70 members including Intel Corp. and Red Hat Inc., has set its sights on firming a standard set of APIs (application programming interfaces) and compatibility test kits so that eventually, any Linux application will run on any Linux operating system, so long as both conform to the specifications.
"The idea is to foster a large body of software products around Linux, as you've seen happen on Windows for the desktop," said Inder Singh, chief executive officer of LynuxWorks, an embedded systems maker in San Jose, California, that will take part in the standards effort. "The market has been so fragmented, so it never fostered the kind of software industry that you had for the desktop."
Application vendors and hardware makers will benefit from a standard embedded version of Linux, said Daya Nadamuni, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "A standards body is really a prime mover behind developing products so that everything works together," she said "That's going to be key for the vendors."
The effort is similar to one that was launched recently to create a new version of Linux for the telecommunication market, she said.
Meanwhile, LynuxWorks is expected to announce added support for Linux this week in a new version of its flagship product LynxOS, a real-time operating system that has been in areas as diverse networking equipment and aircraft navigation. Version 4.0 of LynxOS will support Linux at its core, which means it will be able to run Linux applications without any modification to their code, said Greg Rose, director of product marketing for LynuxWorks.
Lineo, in Lindon, Utah, plans to announce Tuesday deals with hardware partners who will use its embedded Linux operating system, called Embedix, to power new devices, a spokesman for the company said. Sharp Corp. is one company that has used Embedix, in its Zaurus PDA.
Lineo is also set to unveil a number of advances with its embedded Linux development toolkit. They include a packages of tools and software for hardware vendors building television set-top boxes, residential gateways and handheld devices with Embedix. Included in the package are the operating system, development tools, middleware applications, and extensions and drivers, the spokesman said.
Austin, Texas-based Metrowerks, a division of Motorola Inc. which makes a set of embedded Linux development tools called CodeWarrior, is expected to detail new features for its tool kit that will allow developers to build applications for devices such as cell phones and handheld computers that will run over 2.5G (2.5 generation) wireless networks.
Oslo-based Trolltech AS, a maker of Linux software for embedded devices, will unveil a new version of its interface for Linux-based handheld computers, called Qtopia, the company said. Already used in Sharp's Zaurus handheld, Qtopia is made up of a user interface as well as applications such as e-mail and calendar management, Internet access, entertainment software and synchronization with desktop systems.
Equator Technologies Inc., a Campbell, California-based microprocessor maker, plans to announce support for Linux on its line of chips for broadband communications devices, the company said. Equator's BSP-15 family of chips are intended for use in set-top boxes and video surveillance devices.
In another sign of growing support for Linux in the embedded systems market, MontaVista Software, in Sunnyvale, California, is expected to announce new funding from Panasonic, a brand of Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., the company said. MontaVista already counts Sony Corp. among its investors.
While news from Linux companies will make a big footprint at the show, competing vendors looking to make headway in the industry are expected to detail their various advances in the market.
Wind River Systems, which is the market leader for embedded systems according to most analyst firms, will detail the newest version of its real-time operating system for digital signal processing, called Virtuoso, Giga's Quandt said. Used mainly in products such as fax machines, modems and digital cameras, Alameda, California-based Wind River acquired that technology last year when it purchased Eonic Systems NV.
While Microsoft wouldn't comment in detail on its plans for the show, the company is sure to make a push to lure developers to its platform, analysts said. Microsoft recently released embedded versions of Windows XP as well as Windows CE .Net, the latest release of its operating system for devices as computers embedded in car dashboards.