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Open season on OSes

Richard Nass

January 14, 2008

Richard NassJanuary 14, 2008

According to the "2007 Embedded Market Study," Embedded Systems Design magazine's survey of embedded designers, the use of commercial operating systems is trending downward, while the use of open-source OSes is on the rise. On one hand, this comes as no surprise. On the other, it's alarming. Let me explain.

The study found that in 2005, 55 percent of designers employed a commercial OS. That number dropped to 51 percent in 2006, then to 47 percent in 2007. At the same time, the use of open-source OSes climbed from 16 percent in 2006 to 22 percent in 2007.

A key driver for this shift is where, geographically, the designs in question are being done. Designers in China are more apt to choose the open-source solution, at least initially. Understand that another name for "open source" is "free," although we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch.

If you choose the version of open-source Linux that's truly free, the support you receive for that OS is nil. (You get what you pay for.) Hence, many designers start down the path of true open source for their OS, then quickly determine that it's wiser to go with either a standard commercial OS (like Windows, Symbian, etc.) or one of the commercial flavors of Linux (such as MontaVista).

That trend is certainly not surprising. It's human nature to want something for free, but it's good design practice to go with an operating system that comes with tech support.

What's alarming is that the opportunities dwindle for commercial OS vendors as designers opt for open-source operating systems.

While this is not the case in the real-time application space (such as medical devices and mission-critical automotive, military and aerospace applications), it's definitely the case in the consumer space, where devices are shipping in the millions, tens of millions or, in the case of mobile handsets, hundreds of millions.

While the royalties on individual platforms in the consumer application space may be low, the staggering volumes more than make up for it. The leading commercial OS vendor today, at least according to the study, is Wind River.

Embedded Systems Design contributing editor Michael Barr thinks the drop in commercial OSes has to do with the fact that it's hard to differentiate among the various real-time operating system choices.

"Fundamentally, every RTOS is the same as every RTOS," Barr said. "What you need is a way to divide your problem into tasks and have sufficient computing power. Then you want to have a priority-based preemptive kernel. And they're all the same, whether you get your OS out of a book or with free source code included, or you get something else free. Unless you need that driver availability, or some special advanced features, you really aren't willing to pay for it."

The result is that the commercial OS vendors are going after the smaller-volume, albeit much higher-margin, applications. In the end, the number of commercial OS vendors is likely to shrink.

In attempt to cover all bets, some of the commercial OS vendors, including Wind River, have a Linux offering. But the jury is still out on whether that's a working strategy.

In my opinion, the vendors with the more well-known versions of Linux, à la MontaVista, will be most successful.

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