Open source handheld computers

It wasn’t so long ago that a few brave pioneers experimented with running Linux on servers in actual production environments. Up until then, Linux was more for the "recreational user," the guy who played around with servers and open source operating systems at home just for the fun of it. Who would have guessed then that by the year 2001, Linux would be a commercial success and companies like IBM and Oracle would be building major strategies around this operating system?

Today, Linux is a proven operating system with millions of followers worldwide, and it’s considered a viable alternative to Windows NT/2000. It’s commonplace to find extensive support for Linux on the server platform, and increasingly, even on the desktop. Best of all, the fact that Linux is open source software has spurred a tremendous amount of application development for this platform.

But the fun with open source software like Linux may be just getting started. Lately Linux is starting to gain ground in the handheld computer platform. In a market dominated by the Palm and Windows CE operating systems, Linux could revolutionize the handheld market as it has the server market.

Recent hardware advances have enabled Linux on the handheld computer platform. Until recently, there were no widely available handhelds with enough memory or fast enough processors to run a Unix-like operating system and applications. Then the handheld vendor community began developing platforms based on the Intel StrongARM chipset. These processors utilize the XScale microarchitecture, which optimizes low power consumption and high performance processing for a wide range of Internet access devices.

Over the past year, several handhelds using the StrongARM chip have come to market. Compaq is one manufacturer in that market space, with its iPAQ 3600 leading the commercial charge. While the default operating system of this device is not open source like Linux, the hardware is certainly powerful enough to support it if you choose to install an alternate operating system yourself.

There is growing interest in the area of "open handhelds" -- that is, a handheld computer running an open source operating system. In fact, Compaq is helping to promote this interest through a community called ( The organization’s goal is to encourage and facilitate the creation of open software solutions for use on handheld computing platforms. is geared toward the developer community -- those people who are now experimenting with the creative possibilities of open handhelds. As is common in the open source community, the members of this organization help each other along, and build upon the successes of one another.

Why the interest in open handhelds? Well, commercial proprietary handhelds today tend to be optimized for a few narrow applications (such as electronic organizers) and market niches (for example, Avis uses handhelds to process rental car returns). This narrow focus would surely break wide openn if the open source community began to explore and develop new applications. The uses for handheld and wearable computers would grow far beyond today’s task-reminder, e-mail and note-taking functions.

Many research and development projects are already under way in the applications area, including speech recognition and handwriting recognition. Imagine the possible uses: A doctor making hospital rounds can speak into a wristwatch wearable computer, giving directions for patient care. The spoken words are automatically translated into digital format, and wirelessly transmitted to a nurses’ station or medical technician’s laboratory, prompting a reminder for additional medication or scheduling an X-ray or magnetic resonance image (MRI).

The uses are truly limitless, and stretch the bounds of our imagination. Don’t expect to see these open handheld devices at your local CompUSA for a while, but do keep your mind open to the vast possibilities. Tomorrow’s wildly popular handheld application is probably in development in someone’s garage today.

This story, "Open source handheld computers " was originally published by Network World.

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