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Linux: Showing Up in the Strangest of Places

By Jack M. Germain LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Dec 25, 2008 10:00 AM PT

This story was originally published on Sept. 26, 2008, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

Linux: Showing Up in the Strangest of Places

OK. You've heard of Linux. It's another operating system for a computer. But why use it when you can choose between Windows and Macs? Unless you run business-class servers, Linux isn't really something consumers really need to hear about, right?

Well, if that's what you think Linux is, you couldn't be further from the truth. Look around you. Linux is everywhere, but you may not know it. However, you'll have to look at the fine print to be sure, because manufacturers usually don't openly advertise with labels announcing "Linux Inside."

For instance, Linux probably drives your HDTV and the set-top box. Linux is now regarded as the de facto operating system of choice by many manufacturers of electronic toys and video and telephone equipment, along with many things that involve hand-held devices and remote controls.

"The only way to find that Linux is inside is to look for the fine print in product materials. That's where you might find reference to Linux. No manufacturer tends to tell consumers that," Jim Ready, founder and CTO of MontaVista Software, told LinuxInsider.

Why So Secret?

When Intel started to design its processor chips for consumer-grade computers, it went with a marketing strategy to display its existence on a label that would be slapped onto the computer's case. Before that, few consumers knew what Intel was. But hawking the Linux engine on consumer products today is seen as counter-productive. Simply put, product makers want their own brand recognition.

Linux gives consumer product manufacturers a stable operating system with no royalty overhead and no ownership hassles. Not having to cater to a controlling corporate entity gives manufacturers tremendous marketing advantage.

"Linux uses open protocols exclusively. There are no proprietary vendor protocols that try to lock you into certain vendors and products. Monopolies do not exist in the Linux world," Juan Pablo Roig, Unix Specialist at Globant, told LinuxInsider.


Linux is often the go-to guy for silent operating systems in the manufacturing industry. It owes its success there to its solid reliability and its ability to scale and innovate. Why Linux? It's a very functional operating system that can be customized and controlled without having to ask permission from on high.

"No small part of the Linux phenomenon is being in control and a good alternative to Microsoft," offered Ready.

Linux provides manufacturers with another marketing trait both Microsoft and Apple cannot provide. Linux was written by programmers who created the code for other programmers, rather than for a corporate system. To a large degree, this is why Linux is one of the more stable operating systems available today. The programmers themselves, not executives considering a corporate or business angle, were the only people who decided what went into the system, according to Roig.

"The fact that the source code for Windows and other systems is a closely guarded secret keeps people from learning from it. It means that problems which are technically easy to fix cannot be fixed by any user with the technical expertise. Everyone must wait until Microsoft publishes a patch. In summary, the availability of source code is a particularly useful thing for users," explained Roig.

Classic Case

In the earliest days of computing, the first-generation OSes, including mainframes, had no memory protection. Very quickly, building in memory protection became a fundamental goal for developers, noted Ready.

"Linux doesn't have that problem. It's Unix and very functional," he said.

In essence, the benefits of a worldwide open source operating system is much more attractive to manufacturers of consumer products. Typically, Linux wins on four scores.

"Electronics companies are attracted to Linux for a variety of reasons," Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for market research and analysis firm The NPD Group, told LinuxInsider. "First, there are no licensing royalties to pay. The operating system is also powerful and stable and can support a wide range of applications. They can also tailor it to their needs and have complete flexibility with the user interface so they can differentiate their products."

Also, there is a tremendous pool of developers around the world, particularly in Asia, who are comfortable with Linux and other open source technologies, he said.

Other Factors

Three other reasons make Linux the choice of product makers. Linux is cheap to run, cheap to modularize, and easy to secure.

"Since Linux is open source, you can literally have an army of developers take care of most of the maintenance, while you can take care of your module only. When you make changes to the core portion of the Linux code, you can always propose that your changes be included in the original source code. You then no longer need to have someone maintain that code, since others can do it," Laurent Duperval of Consultation Laurent Duperval told LinuxInsider.

In addition, since the code is open, manufacturers have control over which parts they want to include in their components. This allows them to easily reduce the size of the code footprint, he explained.

"Most security issues are quickly fixed and made available to the general public. You don't always have to wait for a vendor-approved patch before correcting any problems you may have. This helps speed up your time to market," he said.

Linux Sampling

Turn to many of the major mobile phone makers to find hard-core use of Linux. But the Linux legacy does not end with pocket phone conversations. You'll find Linux at the heart of smart devices such as portable media players, cameras and most handheld devices. Even dashboard-mounted GPS systems share a Linux heritage.

We at LinuxInsider scoured the Internet for details of products that run on Linux. Here is a brief inventory listing of what we found.

'Netting' the Web

Perhaps the latest craze is the use of Linux in netbooks -- ultra-small portable computers that fill a gap between smartphones and notebook computers. Many of these tiny laptops are nurtured with Intel's low-energy Atom processor.

The Asus EEE PC can be had with Linux, as can offerings from Dell or LG, among others. Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 offers up to 1GB SDRAM, an 8.9-inch, 1024 x 600 display, three USB ports, Ethernet, a 4 GB to 16 GB solid-state drive, and 2 GB of free online storage. LG's X110 netbook boasts a 10-inch, 1024 x 600 display, 1 GB RAM, an 80 GB or 120 GB hard drive, 802.11b/g, and an Ethernet port. Some of these netbooks are available with Windows XP, as well.

Music Mania

In the Spring, SanDisk released the Sansa e200 with Podzilla. This is a flash-based MP3 player that, when tweaked, can run Podzilla. This creative device is based on the open source media player stack first developed by the iPod Linux project.

Also last spring, Slacker introduced a personal music player that connected to WiFi hotspots. Slacker also brought consumers a Web-based Personal Radio browser.

Film Flair

Fedora Linux runs Cirgon's Encore Media Server, which supports 1080i HD resolution. The hard drive options include 320 GB, 500 GB and 750 GB varieties to control and manage music, photos and video for use with an HD-based home theater system.

The Linux-based Netflix Player set-top box lets subscribers stream Netflix movies on demand via a broadband Internet connection.

Control4's Home Controller HC-500 meshes with various home theater appliances. These include multi-room music access, lighting, thermostats and security systems that are Linux-driven.

Cool Stuff

We think one of the most impressive uses of Linux in a consumer product is the Cool-Idea Technology Cool-Karaoke. This is an open source MP3, video and Karaoke player equipped with a 400MHz ARM920t processor, 4GB of flash and a 320x240 display. It includes a free downloadable Linux toolchain and source code. Use its numerous hardware mixers to improve synchronization with recorded music.

And why have snapshots but no music? The Samsung i70 PMP does it both in one package. This digital camera and personal media player is built on a MontaVista Linux platform and has a 7.2-megapixel resolution with a 3x optical zoom and Samsung's ASR (Advanced Shake Reduction) technology.

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How do you feel about government regulation of the U.S. tech industry?
Big tech companies are abusing their monopoly power and must be reined in.
Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
Regulations stifle innovation and should be kept to the barest minimum.
Over-regulation could give China and other nations an unfair advantage.
Outdated antitrust laws should be updated prior to serious regulatory efforts.
Tech companies should regulate themselves to avoid government intervention.
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