December 18, 2008, 11:24 AM — Linux has a strong following among those who manage corporate servers, a loyal corps of desktop users and a small but growing base of laptop users. But it's also been a big -- if stealthy -- success as a platform for gadgets.
In fact, there ought to be a Linux Gadget Hall of Fame. I'll get it started with the first group of inductees: 10 of the most important gadgets of all time, each one based on Linux.
Just as some of the inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are there because they're world-class performers, while others are honored for their innovation, I've chosen the gadgets in this roundup for various reasons. Some are high-visibility best-sellers, others are lesser-known players that blazed new trails, and some are simply the best at what they do. All are deserving of a place of honor in the Hall of Fame.
These gadgets are presented in no particular order; head on over to our reader poll to help rank them. Let's hear your nominees as well. Tell us which Linux-based gadgets you believe have been the most important in changing the consumer electronics landscape and why.
In the meantime, here are my first 10 inductees into the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
TiVo digital video recorder
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, television entered the U.S. mass market, forever changing how people entertain themselves. Since its introduction in 1999, TiVo has forever changed how people watch television.
Sure, the widespread adoption of VCRs in the late '70s and early '80s brought the concept of time-shifting to consumers. Instead of being anchored to your sofa during a TV show, movie or sporting event, you could record it and watch it later, fast-forwarding through commercials if you so desired.
But TiVo, the technology behind the world's first digital video recorder (DVR), brought time-shifting into the 21st century, enabling you to stop a live TV program and start it up again when you return from the kitchen, a phone call or the bathroom, or rewind for an instant replay at regular speed or in slow motion. You can automatically record individual shows, an entire season of a show or two shows simultaneously. You can search for specific actors and record everything in which they appear. And yes, you can skip the commercials.
In other words, TiVo lets you watch precisely what you want, when you want to watch it. TiVo also proves that Linux isn't just for geeks; its interface is so natural that users quickly feel that's how television should always work.
The first TiVo DVR was actually released by Philips in 1999; TiVo didn't launch its own DVR devices until 2002. Recent market studies estimate there are now more than 36 million DVRs at work in the U.S. , but unfortunately for TiVo, copycat competitors made most of those devices.
Nevertheless, TiVo was an important trailblazer and is still arguably the best-of-breed DVR. It's a shoo-in for the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
Nokia Internet Tablets
Industry analysis firm ABI Research predicted last summer that 90 million mobile Internet devices (MIDs), sometimes called Internet Tablets, will be sold by 2012, and most of those will be based on Linux.
Say what? What's a MID?
That question was answered in 2005 by Finnish telecom giant Nokia when it released its Linux-based N770 Internet Tablet . The 9-oz. PDA-size device was aimed at giving mobile users a more satisfying Internet experience than is possible with smart phones.
Besides connecting to the Internet via Wi-Fi, the device could play back media and manage personal information. It had a keyboard that was superior to those found on smart phones, a comparatively generous 4.1-in. display, a built-in camera and Bluetooth. The newest version, the N810 WiMax Edition , supports, as the name implies, WiMax as well as Wi-Fi.
This class of devices has yet to succeed; although they have the strong backing of chip makers like Intel, they are expensive and Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch do many of the same things quite elegantly. But Nokia's Internet Tablets earn their place in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame by being the first widely available devices to make using the Internet while mobile a delight instead of a trial.
Asus Eee PC netbook
Ultrasmall laptops, or netbooks , are another new category of products aimed at mobile Internet users, and the original Linux-based, 2-lb., $400 Asus Eee PC was the first such device to hit the mass market. The Eee PC and the crowd of competitors that followed are like MIDs , but larger. Typical netbook screen sizes are seven to 10 inches, and the devices usually weigh about 2 pounds.
As often happens with new categories of products, featuritis took over and netbooks became more powerful and expensive; some were even based on (gasp!) Windows. Now vendors have signaled they are returning to the concept of simple and cheap -- Asus has strongly hinted that it's planning a $200 Eee PC for 2009 . As was the case with the original Eee PC, that probably means Linux.
True, the Eee PC wasn't the first to adopt this particular form factor. The One Laptop Per Child project, which is aimed at providing inexpensive laptops to kids in developing nations, received a lot of attention prior to the Eee PC's release.
But the Eee PC is in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame because it was the first such device to go mainstream, bringing Linux to a whole new group of consumers and spawning an important new market segment.
Amazon Kindle e-reader
E-readers have been around since the late '90s, but it wasn't until Amazon released the Kindle reader in late 2007 that the world started taking the concept seriously.
The 10.3-oz., $359 device can store more than 200 books. So far, Amazon has made more than 190,000 titles available to Kindle owners, and you can subscribe to almost 200 periodicals and have them delivered automatically to the device. Its monochrome e-paper display crisply mimics the look and feel of a printed page.
But the real key to Kindle's growing success is built-in wireless 3G access that connects the Kindle to Amazon's online store, a capability that is included in the initial purchase price and requires no additional monthly fees. While previous e-readers made it simple to read e-books, Kindle also makes it simple to acquire them no matter where you are. And consumers are starting to respond: Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney has predicted Kindle sales of 380,000 in 2008 , making it comparable to first-year sales for Apple's iPod.
Need further proof of Kindle's importance? Oprah recently endorsed it , saying it is "absolutely my new favorite thing in the world." The Kindle easily earns a spot in the Gadget Hall of Fame because it finally makes the e-reader a compelling idea.
TomTom GO personal GPS device
The market for portable GPS devices was starting to heat up in the spring of 2004. That's when TomTom released the GO , the first mass-market Linux-based personal navigation device.
Besides the uniqueness of being based on Linux, this device sported flashy features that were still relatively new for handheld navigation devices (as opposed to devices built into cars) such as a touch screen and text-to-speech capabilities that speak directions out loud.
Newer versions of the GO are still available; some of them, such as the GO 930T , offer other newfangled features such as built-in Bluetooth to help you make hands-free calls, real-time traffic condition updates and a built-in MP3 player.
These days, personal navigation devices are common and several are based on Linux. Garmin, for example, started moving its highly regarded Nuvi line of navigation devices to Linux last year and is to be commended for having a more active developer's program than TomTom. But the original TomTom GO earns its spot in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame because it brought Linux to the world of personal navigation gadgets.
Sansa Connect portable media player
SanDisk's Sansa Connect media player had a short, commercially unsuccessful life after it was introduced in the spring of 2007, but as a proof-of-concept device, it was an important success.
The Connect was the first media player to make intelligent use of Wi-Fi to provide seamless access to online media. Microsoft had already released Zune with built-in Wi-Fi, but the wireless applications for Zune were, and still are, relatively lame.
By contrast, the Sansa Connect hooked into the now-defunct Yahoo Music Unlimited subscription service, from which you could listen to, purchase and buy new music or listen to any of 150 Internet radio stations. It also connected seamlessly to Yahoo's Flickr photo service, providing mobile access to all your digital images. But best of all, it sported one of the clearest, easiest-to-use interfaces ever for a mobile media device.
Unfortunately, the Sansa Connect was inextricably tied to Yahoo's subscription music service, and such services still haven't found traction in the marketplace. But its easy-yet-powerful access to media and its delightful interface were clearly superior to the iPods that were then available.
These days, Apple's highly connective iPhone and iPod Touch are, quite possibly, the most compelling mobile media devices ever made. But the Sansa Connect paved the way, which lands it in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
Archos mobile video players
Archos initially tried making a name for itself as a MP3 player vendor but found its primary competitor -- Apple's iPod -- too much to handle. So the company started specializing in Linux-based mobile media players that are particularly tuned to acquiring and playing video.
Videos play beautifully on Archos' devices, which have bright screens as large as 7 inches. Acquiring video is easy using built-in Wi-Fi. (One version, the Archos 5G , is even 3G-equipped.) That connectivity also makes these devices excellent tools for mobile Internet access. And, of course, they also play music.
The Archos players are like Amazon's Kindle and the Sansa Connect in that they make it easy to obtain content from the Internet, not just play it after being transferred from your computer. Content acquisition is so important to Archos that it even offers an optional DVR docking station for its players, a wonderful touch for mobile video enthusiasts.
While some of our Gadget Hall of Fame inductees deserve recognition for their uniqueness or first-to-market status, the Archos media players earn their place in the Hall by being best of breed. If you can't travel without your favorite TV shows and movies, Archos' mobile video devices are for you.
HTC T-Mobile G1 smart phone
Sports fans would scoff at the notion of a rookie being selected to the Hall of Fame, no matter how much potential the rookie has. But the gadget world moves much, much faster, and it seems like a safe bet to induct the G1 smart phone, built by Taiwan-based HTC Corp. and offered in the U.S. by T-Mobile, into the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
Truth be told, the G1's hardware is just the container for the real star: Google's Android mobile platform, based on the Linux kernel. The G1 is the first publicly available device to use that platform. Early reviews have tended to focus more on what the platform can do -- its seamless access to Google services, for example -- than on the virtues of the hardware.
Not that HTC did a poor job with the hardware. Those reviews indicate a crisp display, a reasonably usable keyboard and even a bar code scanner, which can help you find reviews or low prices for specific products you scan.
But the Android Linux platform, developed by the Google-led Open Handset Alliance , and the applications available for it, are clearly the stars. The HTC G1, more than any other smart phone before it, shows the world that Linux is a rich platform for smart phones, which makes this rookie a shoo-in for the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
Motorola Ming smart phone
Before the G1 , there was the Motorola Ming. Chances are, you've never heard of the Ming, but for a while it was the darling of the pundit class, with some predicting (correctly, as it turned out) it would lead to a surge in the use of Linux as a mobile platform.
The original Ming A1200 was an immediate hit after its launch in China in early 2006, selling about a million units in the first full quarter after its release. That, along with the release of the Windows Mobile-based Motorola Q series in the West, propelled Motorola to the No. 3 spot in the smart phone vendor heap, at least for a while.
The Ming is an unassuming-looking smart phone. For one thing, it's tiny -- it looks like half a clamshell phone. But its capabilities go far beyond the run of the mill.
For instance, the Ming had a touch screen before Apple's iPhone. The newest versions (the A1600 and A1800), released earlier this year in China, have built-in GPS, handwriting recognition (for Chinese characters) and a business card reader. The A1800 can even work on both CDMA and GSM cellular systems, meaning it's a true world phone.
Motorola still considers the Ming a success, claiming it has sold more than 3 million of the devices since its introduction. More important, though, the Ming's success came at a time when Linux was not a factor in the smart phone world. In 2006, Nokia and the Symbian platform held an overwhelming worldwide lead, Research In Motion's BlackBerry was surging, and Microsoft had finally stopped fumbling and released a viable smart phone platform -- Windows Mobile 5.
But the Ming showed the phone industry that Linux was a strong platform, paving the way for the G1 and whatever Linux phones come next. For being an unsung (in the West, anyway) Linux hero, the Ming earns a spot in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
Linksys BEFSR41 Ethernet router
Perhaps it's an overgeneralization, but few groups like to tinker with technology more than Linux fans. The dryly named Linksys BEFSR41 router, released in late 1999, was the first successful mass-consumer router with Linux firmware, which opened the door for tinkering with the capabilities of home routers.
A bit of context: Broadband in the home was just starting to become common in 1999, and the first wireless networking standard to be a widespread success -- 802.11b -- was approved just a couple of months before this router was released. As a result, the BEFSR41 wasn't wireless-capable but, rather, was strictly for Ethernet connections.
But the BEFSR41 succeeded -- it's still being sold by Linksys -- in part because the people who needed home routers in those days were fairly early adopters, and early adopters tend to be tinkerers, and many tinkerers love Linux.
There wasn't a lot of Linux firmware then; more is available now. In fact, rival router manufacturer Netgear has been, of late, more enthusiastic than Linksys about helping users of its open-source home routers customize their devices. That company released the WGR614L router last year, marketing it directly at Linux enthusiasts.
But Linksys broke new Linux ground with its BEFSR41, and for that it deserves its spot in the Linux Gadget Hall of Fame.
David Haskin is a frequent contributor to Computerworld.