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Embedded Linux – Are you already a Linux user?

There are now more and more people discovering Linux as a real alternative to running Windows on our desktop computers. This may be because Linux is Free as in money (you have to buy Windows), it maybe that they’ve bought a netbook with Linux installed, it may be because of the frustrations of working with Windows due to instability or lack of support for older hardware (in fact even fairly new hardware runs Windows Vista slowly), or because of the opensource and free software ideology. There are however more Linux users that don’t even realise that they are using Linux. The operating system is working in the background behind the scenes in some cases all but invisible to the end user.

This is nothing new. Web users have been oblivious to the fact that many of the sites they visit are powered by Linux. This includes the webserver that this site is running on, but also big names such as Google search engine. In fact people have been using embedded linux in other devices as well (eg. In-flight entertainment systems), but embedded Linux is getting more popular and I expect that is the way it will continue.

For example I recently bought a TomTom Sat Nav GO 730. There is nothing on the device to indicate it’s Linux, there are no Linux messages during start-up, but behind the scenes TomTom Sat Navs are running on the Linux kernel. To a lesser extent some of the Garmin products also use Linux.

Then there are the hidden technology devices, such as: routers, media streamers and network based storage devices. Or mobile phones such as the Nokia N900 Mobile Phone which uses the Linux Maemo platform. Some media players also use embedded linux.

There are also a new range of devices which are too expensive to become mainstream except by using the Linux operating system. This includes the Kindle Wireless Reading Device, an ebook reader.

Why is embedded Linux so popular?

The reason for the popularity comes down to a number of factors made possible through the free / open source software model.

  • Free (as in beer) – Free and OpenSource software can be used without paying a licensing fee. This is particularly important with embedded devices which are low-priced and the cost of paying for the operating system will add to the end user’s price
  • Freedom to change – Unlike proprietary operating systems manufacturers are able to change any of the code to make the software meet their specific requirements. For example if the bluetooth code does not have the feature they need to make it work then they can just change the way the code works. Most OpenSource licenses require that any changes are then made available for anyone else to use in their equipment as well.
  • Lightweight – remove the bloat – The modular way in which Linux is designed means that if features of the operating system are not needed then they can be removed to keep the code small and reduce the load on the processor

With stiff competition in this fields the use of Linux in embedded devices is likely to increase.