Compaq's release of Linux for the iPaq will allow researchers and developers to write new applications for handheld computers and other intelligent appliances, said Nora Hahn, a Compaq spokeswoman. The idea is to try to encourage use of Linux as a common operating system and development tool for handheld computers.
The iPaq, released in April, will continue to use the Windows CE operating system commercially, however. The Palm and Microsoft Windows CE operating systems hold the small device market now, but Linux "may become a second platform in the future", she said. "Customers are pretty focused on a Windows environment," she said.
The program may prove promising to Linux enthusiasts in the scientific, research and development set as a next step toward the release of more of Compaq's Itsy project, said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at IDC.
The Itsy device -- which has been demonstrated but is still in development -- is a multifunction computer the size of a deck of cards, with enough processing power to run real-time video and the capability to use voice and motion input.
"A lot of people in the Linux community have been saying, 'come on, Compaq, release the device', " he said. The Itsy project foretells a future in which consumers can use appliances to speak, either in person or online, and get answers in return, he said.
However, Compaq doesn't see the teeny-weeny Itsy as a product to release but a process, a program in constant development, the fruits of which will find their way into other products like the iPaq, said Dick Greeley, a program manager for the Open Handheld Program.
"There's no plan right now to come out with Itsy itself," he said. "There's a lot of Itsy technology in the iPaq, like the expansion card and the work we've done on power management. The iPaq is the son of Itsy."
The Itsy runs Linux. Linux is sold by commercial software houses that charge users for the software and related services, but it is also available for free on the web and it is based on the open-source model of development. In the open-source model, developers and users worldwide, many of them working on an unpaid basis, collaborate to modify and update the code.
"One of the things Linux strives to do well is to write extremely good modular code. We're trying to stimulate the community. That's part of the exploration here, to see how this plays out. Some of this innovation is starting to find its way back into the Linux community," Greeley said.
While technically minded software developers embrace Linux, it has only a 4 per cent share of the personal computing market. Linux is associated with use on servers -- the realm of the computer-savvy -- rather than on handheld computers, which are supposed to be more consumer-friendly, said Jill House, a senior analyst for IDC.
"It (Compaq's new program) represents the first time someone major has supported Linux for handhelds," she said, noting Compaq's presence in portable computers. "Compaq is a big name. They're a major player in the mobile space."