Linux inches toward acceptance on PDAs

Over the past few years, advocates of the Linux operating system have mounted several failed offensives to try and conquer the desktop, but at the same time a less visible battle has been going on in the PDA (personal digital assistant) market. The difference between them? Linux may actually have a chance on PDAs.

Several personal organizers running Linux were on display at this year's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, including Sharp Corp.'s upcoming Zaurus, which will be the Japanese electronics giant's first PDA for the U.S. to ship with the operating system installed. South Korea's Gmate Inc., meanwhile, showed its Yopy device, and a German company launched a version of Linux designed to run on Compaq's iPaq.

The battle for acceptance on PDAs depends in large part on having a graphical user interface (GUI) that's acceptable to users. Sharp's Zarus SL-5000, which is expected to launch early next year, will use the Qt interface from Trolltech Inc.

"The market is now starting to accept Linux, and having Sharp on board, they feel comfortable," said Aron Kozak, Trolltech's product marketing manager for Qt. The first versions of the Zaurus, which are being made available to developers this month, will be priced at US$399.

Linux has a couple of factors in its favor on PDAs, according to its advocates. "Linux is at least as powerful as (Microsoft's) Pocket PC," Kozak said. "It's also completely scalable -- you can shrink it down to nothing."

The Zaurus is based on Intel Corp.'s StrongARM 206MHz processor, the same chip used in Compaq's iPaq and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Jornada PDA, both of which run Microsoft's Pocket PC software.

The Sharp deal was inked after a developer at the Japanese firm downloaded Trolltech's software onto an iPaq he was using and decided he liked it, Kozak said. "He only downloaded it three or four months ago."

Interest among users in downloading Linux for the iPaq is eclipsing handheld computers that are sold with Linux preinstalled, according to one analyst. "Although there are probably less than 1 percent of iPaqs that are running Linux, it's probably talked about as much as all the other (Linux PDAs) combined," said Todd Kort, a principal analyst with Gartner Inc.

Tuxia Inc., a German company that makes an embedded version of Linux, launched a downloadable version of the OS for iPaqs at Comdex last week. Publicity that the company garnered resulted in between 300 and 400 versions of the software being downloaded in a day, said Anthony O'Sullivan, Tuxia's vice president of marketing. "Up to then, we had about 150 downloads total," he said.

Looking to stay ahead of the curve, Tuxia has started porting its version of Linux to XScale, a follow on to Intel's StrongArm family of processors. Although XScale isn't in circulation yet, Tuxia wants to be ready when the chip appears in future PDAs from HP, Compaq and others, O'Sullivan said.

However, he acknowledged what some see as a significant stumbling block for Linux on PDAs, which was also a factor that hampered the operating system's acceptance on the desktop: the availability of compatible applications.

"The gating factor (between Linux and Pocket PC) is definitely the development of applications," O'Sullivan said. "We need to get people to port more software to it."

Tuxia has toyed with the idea of building a Linux portal that would provide a central repository for Linux PDA applications, he said.

O'Sullivan is hopeful the user base for Linux PDAs will grow in the coming six to nine months, but admits that it could prove a tough battle -- particularly since Compaq hasn't even endorsed the operating system on its handhelds.

"We won't support the (iPaq) if someone puts Linux on it," said Compaq spokeswoman Nora Hahn. "We do make the iPaq available to certified Linux developers, but they have to be developers," she said.

Linux on the iPaq "may be attractive if you have some programming talent and want to do some internal program development," Gartner's Kort said. "But I'm seeing more of an Asian phenomenon where they're just trying to get the costs down" by using Linux, he said.

South Korean vendor Gmate showed its Yopy handheld last week, another PDA offered with Linux preinstalled. The device is set to go on sale in Korea next month, with shipments in the U.S. scheduled for the first quarter of 2002, said Seung-Chae Cheong, local market manager for Gmate.

The device uses a clamshell-like design with a 3.5 inch reflective LCD (liquid crystal display) panel in the upper half, and a 40-key keypad occupying the lower half. The device packs 64M bytes of main memory and runs the Linupy Linux operating system for ARM-based processors, as well as X Windows. This should provide users with access to hundreds of applications developed to run on X Windows, as well as a standard platform on which new applications can be developed, company officials have said.

"The great thing about Linux is that it's both free and more scalable than other operating systems," Cheong said. Gmate's device will cost around US$400 in both South Korea and the U.S.

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Douglas F. Gray

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