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Is the use of open source software in embedded systems just a fad?

In the past two years, increasing numbers of embedded programmers have been getting to know Linux and other open source software packages intimately. What has primarily attracted this interest is the non-existent pricing structure. But some of the initial enthusiasm-particularly for Linux-seems to be fading.

Is the use of open source software in embedded systems just a fad?

I found a couple of interesting insights about Linux buried within a recent survey of embedded developers by Evans Data Corp. The survey asked a number of questions focused on Linux, and the results are cross-tabulated in interesting ways. One table, titled “Perceptions of Linux' Biggest Technical Difficulties by Degree of Community Interaction,” presents data gleaned from a question asked of those considering and already using Linux, sorted by their experience level. Developers who hadn't actually done anything with Linux yet (about 84% of those surveyed) perceived its biggest technical hurdles to be “availability of device drivers” and “lack of board support packages.” However, developers with hands-on Linux experience including kernel modifications (about 6%) were most concerned about the “size” of the package.

You'd think that the size of the Linux code (which is measured in megabytes), its worst-case interrupt latency and other performance characteristics, and RAM requirements (also megabytes) would be the overriding concerns for embedded programmers. Yet the big issues that I hear everyone complain about are legalities surrounding open source licensing terms and fragmentation of the widely distributed code base. In reality, these latter items are not big problems for embedded programmers, as those who've actually investigated Linux already know. It's the memory and performance issues that really kill.

As the reality begins to overtake the hype, a consultant/author friend had this to say about the evolving market for his Linux services:

“Two years ago I was pumped up on embedded Linux. You said it would pass; I thought you were crazy. Well…I just stopped work on my book. I only found two Linux clients and I ran out of money. Back to VxWorks to pay the bills-and get me out of debt for the time and effort I put into Linux.”

Though there are certainly companies out there embedding Linux, the market isn't growing as rapidly as most analysts predicted it would. And I don't think it ever will.

In this issue of the magazine we focus on what may be the more enduring legacy of open source in our realm: small special-purpose software packages aimed specifically at embedded and real-time systems. The two considered here are a reentrant C standard library called newlib and the eCos real-time operating system. Each does one thing and does it well. Both are small and highly portable, their authors recognizing the overriding importance of those features. Not surprisingly, both packages were originally developed at Cygnus, who had much to do with the quality and success of the open source GNU compiler and debugger embedded programmers have counted on for so long.

Packages like these get far less attention than Linux, but are quite a bit more promising.

Return to January 2002 Table of Contents

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