Linux inches toward acceptance on PDAs

By Douglas F. Gray, IDG News Service |  Operating Systems

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 Computer Corp.'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 Corp.'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.

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