Design Con 2015

Embedded Linux has more friends than you may know

Jim Ready, MontaVista Software

May 12, 2008

Jim Ready, MontaVista SoftwareMay 12, 2008

Sony recently announced that one of its BRAVIA LCD TV factories will double production from 2 million TV sets per year to 4 million to meet growing demand in Europe. Sony has sold more than 20 million of these TVs, and they're all built with embedded Linux.

So what? Embedded Linux is no surprise. Sony and tens of thousands of other companies, from huge to tiny, use embedded Linux every day to deliver successful products in every market. That is not news.

Ten years ago, though, embedded Linux was a surprising-even shocking-idea to most people. Back in 1998, fresh from victory in the RTOS industry, I introduced the idea of building a software company to make Linux a suitable OS for developing smart devices. When I told people the idea, they gawked as if I was a few lines short of compilable code.

"You want to build a company on software that's available for free?" I was asked. "Based on the gigantically bloated Unix OS? And with some oddball GPL license? How fast do you expect people to kick you out of their office?"

Every market survey showed that the demand for embedded Linux was zero. When we released our first product, industry experts agreed that nobody needed it. Embedded Linux won't work because it is "too big, too slow, and not real-time," said the head of one RTOS company. The president of another derided embedded Linux as "a royal pain in the ass," so no developer would ever use it.

I took heart from a quote attributed to Mohandas Gandhi: "First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win."

Some creative engineers ignored the doubters and saw the values of embedded Linux: faster development cycles, no learning proprietary RTOS quirks, no entrapment by proprietary software, no royalty payments.

Like many of our competitors, we contributed code back to kernel.org and to other open-source projects, and continually improved our offerings, adding quality, integration, support, and hardware enablement to support more hardware platforms.

The first engineers who experimented with embedded Linux found that it worked. It saved them from having to integrate many open-source projects. It gave them predictability in achieving their design goals. It helped accelerate product delivery dates. It saved development costs. Other companies, such as Wind River, saw the potential and added embedded Linux offerings to their product lists.

Embedded Linux comes in many flavors, DIY or homemade, semiconductor distributions, and independent commercial versions from MontaVista, WindRiver and others. The number of companies designing end products with all these flavors of embedded Linux continues to increase. Motorola, NEC, and Panasonic for example, have deployed more than 30 million mobile phones with MontaVista Linux; Yamaha chose the OS to build its MOTIF XS music production synthesizers, now used by Stevie Wonder, Beyonce Knowles, Justin Timberlake, and other musicians. Developers' creativity never stops. They've used embedded Linux to build some wonderful and unexpected devices: patient monitors, toys, industrial robots, self-defense devices, games, satellites, e-book readers.

Remember that Gandhi quote? Nobody ignores embedded Linux now. Nobody laughs at it. Some companies still fight it by claiming that Linux is flawed or isn't worth dealing with, but embedded Linux continues to win.

Analyst firms don't agree on how many device engineers use embedded Linux, but they all say the number is substantial: 21% of developers use embedded Linux, according to last year's Embedded Systems Design survey; 36.7%, according to current research by Embedded Market Forecasters. This April, VDC reported that Linux is now the leading embedded OS. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, commercial Linux vendors succeed because they understand what design engineers are looking for.

Jim Ready is the CTO and founder of MontaVista Software. Jim developed the first viable commercial RTOS product, the VRTX real-time kernel, at Ready Systems, which he co-founded in 1980. Jim served as Ready Systems' president, and as CTO of Microtec and Mentor Graphics. He can be reached at jready@mvista.com.

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