Foreword — This interview with Murry Shohat, executive director of the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC), discusses the work the ELC is doing to promote and standardize embedded Linux. It also discusses embedded Linux marketplace matters, technology, and standards organizations.
This is the fifth in our series of interviews with executives at key embedded Linux companies and organizations (see “Related Stories” section below for a complete list).
Q1: Can you provide a brief overview of the Embedded Linux Consortium (ELC): when was it formed, by whom, what has it accomplished, and what is it working towards?
A1: The ELC began in 1999 as a brainstorm in the mind of Rick Lehrbaum, who was in touch with the early embedded Linux leaders as he constructed his now-venerable website, LinuxDevices.com. Rick brought me in early and we worked together to build the structure based on our complementary but separate consortium experiences in the embedded market. A proposal was presented to an assembly of more than 75 invited corporate and open source leaders at the Spring Embedded Systems Conference in Chicago in March 2000. The ELC was officially born at that meeting, and I gained the job of Executive Director, tasked to fulfill a charter that was also refined and approved at the meeting.
Within 120 days, ELC membership swelled to 120 members, most of them corporations ranging from startups to world giants. Our launch charter was to promote embedded Linux and open source software in order to gain traction in the embedded market and further the idea that Linux would provide an effective, secure, and powerful operating system. In those days, our board of directors (called the Formation Committee at the time) consisted of 19 corporations and open source individuals. After a year, we gained some sanity (for me, at least) and changed to a democratic seven-person board achieved through nomination and election. One of our directors is drawn from individual open source developer-members. Some of these members earn free membership through their prior contributions to the Linux code base.
Getting the word out proved to be an effective mission. The ELC accomplished this by exhibiting at trade shows large and small, by proactive media relations where we talked about implementations, tools, startups etc., and by the work of our education committee where we provided speakers for conference programs, colloquia, and controversial panels. In the first 18 months, we were extremely busy. These activities continue today.
A high point for us was “Pavilion 101” at the 2002 Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) in San Francisco. At 120 feet in length, our Pavilion gathered many exhibiting members into a single thematic exhibit space that included a presentation theater. The Pavilion broke ESC's record for booth length. You could not attend the show and miss us and that was a big message to our proprietary competitors.
But the real high point at this event was the standards kickoff meeting we held, which attracted a standing room only crowd plus strong media attendance and resulted in an earnest start for construction of what is now called the ELCPS, or Embedded Linux Consortium Platform Specification.
The ELCPS has had in interesting history. In April 2001, the ELC board floated and promoted a proposal to add standards to our mission. Over the next year, the ELC sought and received a great deal of input, culminating in the standards kickoff at ESC2002. Attendees may recall the admonitions of Maddog Hall to remain pure and true to open source principles. From some quarters, the ELC was criticized for moving too fast. From other quarters, we took heat for moving too slow. In hindsight, my opinion is that we should have included standards activities in our original charter.
The ELC board wanted to assemble a platform that offered assurance on the availability of a minimum set of resources that were needed by application software and middleware for any embedded Linux distribution. We listened to Maddog and others in this endeavor. It's important to note that the ELC does not distribute Linux code under our by laws. (Instead, our standards activity looks upon Linux distributions in a transparent fashion applicable to any Linux distribution.) The resulting ELCPS — which took a year of intense work to build and ratify — provides a unified open platform for embedded operating systems. As such, it helps developers by substantially decreasing the time and expense needed to construct embedded applications. The ELCPS provides a standard for the API layer that increases the reusability or portability of program code from project to project. The spec can be downloaded from Embedded-Linux.org. It offers resource guidance for applications ranging from small to large in terms of compute footprint.
Today, the ELC continues its promotion activities and is seeking industry partners for the ELCPS. Notably, we are talking with the traffic control industry where the ELCPS could be adopted as a recommended development platform, and with various elements of Government and DoD (Department of Defense), where the ELCPS could help to maximize the benefits of using embedded Linux across DoD programs. Other market spaces are under discussion, but it's too early to say anything.
Q2. Can you comment on the relative roles of the ELC and the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF)?
A2: First and foremost, the ELC applauds the founders of CELF for their vision and energy, which are directed toward validation of Linux as the preferred operating system for consumer electronics. The CELF effort, like the ELC effort, underscores the desire of product developers to NOT be enslaved by any proprietary operating system. Both of our groups agree with and promote the principles and practices of open source software development.
The core differentiation is that the ELC does not implement nor distribute Linux, while the CELF is actively constructing and distributing Linux via a source tree that is very specific to consumer electronic devices. Companies that wish to build CE devices that include Linux are motivated to provide engineers to develop the source tree for everyone's benefit. This is exciting and often intensely competitive among the contributing open source developers, but the result is expected to be a robust ecosystem of open source code in this important market space where an increasing number of new products are embedded computers.
Historically, a lesson learned from the TRON operating system was rampant fragmentation that prevented the development of interoperable applications for essentially Japanese-developed CE devices. I visited with a number of Japanese executives at a Tokyo embedded technology trade show a few years ago and learned first hand about concerns with TRON. CELF in my view may reduce fragmentation in the embedded operating system market, and this will be good for everyone. At some point — hopefully sooner rather than later — value-added after-market applications developed to run, for example, on a Panasonic home theater system will also work on a competing Mitsubishi or Philips system. Thanks to Linux!
While CE is a huge global market, it is just one market among many, and others such as telematics, mission critical military, traffic control, and medical instrumentation to name a few, have different needs. The resulting CELF source tree won't necessarily serve these requirements. The ELC hopes that the ELCPS can serve these broader needs by easing application development at the API level. Then, any Linux distribution that complies with the ELCPS can serve the specific needs of these various market spaces. We also hope the ELCPS can serve as a tool for application and middleware software developers to provide a well-known and well-defined target API across distributions packaged by multiple different distributors.
It's clear to ELC management, I think, that some market spaces may need custom-developed Linux distributions. A good example predating CELF is carrier-grade Linux, sponsored by OSDL.
The ELC encourages CELF, OSDL and others to keep their work consistent and compliant with the tenets of open source software development, notably keeping pace with official Linux kernel distributions as they continue their evolution.
The ELC and CELF continue to have informal discussions about possible areas of cooperation.
Q3: How would you characterize the current state of embedded Linux, as a market and as a technology?
A3: I characterize the state as Hip Hip Hurray! Linux as an embedded OS has passed through infancy and adolescence in a real hurry, and is now delivering huge value for nearly all embedded applications. The native maturity of Linux under its program of development and distribution by Linus Torvalds and Andrew Morton has reached a point in the 2.6 kernel where embedded developers no longer need to consider home-brew as the most viable solution. Sure, engineering development is needed to handle niche-specific needs, but the core OS now has ample hooks, drivers, and resources to be a viable embedded platform nearly anywhere. Even the most demanding hard real-time applications can benefit. One of the ELC's members, LynuxWorks, is already offering 2.6 in the latest distribution of BlueCat Linux.
Q4: What challenges do embedded Linux OS, tools, and services vendors face?
A4: I think the key challenge is education to defeat FUD and more education to unify the landscape so that product developers gain confidence in Linux and open source. Distribution, tools, and services vendors must remain vigilant to stay ahead of FUD, and ELC membership is a good way to do that.
On the tools front, there needs to be general recognition that open source compatibility is the Holy Grail, not Linux tool chains per se. Much attention has been focused on Linux-specific tool chains. In my opinion, the attention is misdirected. While tools need to offer cross-development and native development environments, the focus should be on access to the source code. Then, environments like Eclipse will become more attractive. Organizations familiar with Eclipse for development of a non-Linux application will be able to leverage their knowledge and build Linux applications. Different companies can offer powerful vendor-specific tool chains while also offering tool interoperability that benefits the customer. Through source code access, product developers have the best opportunity to achieve highly differentiated and competitive products, regardless of the tool chain. This is much different that the lock-in developers faced in the past, and it opens a new era for the development of tools.
As in any market, if there are customers there will soon be products. I think this is an excellent time to be in the tools business where Linux developments are the target.
By the way, my introduction to Linux came in the tools market for electronic design automation. Roll-your-own tools running on top of Linux back in 1997 were my heads-up as a journalist (it was this experience that put a star by my name on Rick Lehrbaum's Rolodex, leading to the launch of the ELC). The nature of open source made this scenario possible and I'm sure glad Rick called me.
Q5: What market opportunities do you see for Linux in the embedded devices and systems market?
A5: My personal view is that more and more of the products we encounter in life are becoming embedded computers. What a huge opportunity! When you study the moves of the titans in this business, it's clear that the embedded opportunity also connects with both enterprise and desktop computing and this is beyond exciting. This means that the era of “pervasive” computing is upon us, and the Linux OS represents a standardized platform for securely sharing information at home, at work, basically everywhere. It also means broad interoperability for application software and middleware, which will ultimately increase the ease and reduce the cost of computing to everyone. Open source software is rather unique in the manner in which it promises to help computing achieve its destiny as a key and ongoing technological enhancement for everyone's life. This is why we hear open source and embedded-friendly strategies coming from companies like SAP, Oracle, IBM, Sun, HP, and many others. These companies get it.
As an example, buttonhole one of the titans and mention “voice recognition.” Leading companies — those who are able to pay for targeted market research — know that at some near-future point, they need their technology to be resident as middleware in your lap or on your plasma display and DVR in the family room. They need to enable recognition of your transaction-enabled voice from the microphone embedded in your DVR in order to achieve trustworthy and secure authorization and billing for the digital media stream you just requested while sitting on your sofa.
These companies also want to have their software resident in medical instrumentation (web connected to a vast medical resource), in military ground support equipment, in traffic control — not just traffic signals but in regional mass transit control, in tele/data communications, in factory automation, in just about any market you can mention where computers are being embedded.
This of course trends to a long-term view. The near term opportunity is most visible right now in consumer electronics, so you can understand the rush to unify and defragment now taking place in CE. The titans of CE don't want to become a “suburb of Redmond” with all the taxation that implies, and their steps are instructive and illuminating for the entire embedded market. Let's hope they avoid mis-steps as they adopt Linux into one of the thinnest margin marketplaces on earth.
I have always characterized the overall embedded market as a coalition of valleys, canyons, fjords, plains, and vales. On the hardware front, we see the distinctions in many competing form factors, like VME vs. CompactPCI, PC/104 vs. roll-your-own. And now, there are competing high performance serial fabrics — data highways — thrown in for forward migration. On the software front, we see proprietary operating systems competing head to head with Linux. My background spans more than 30 years in these markets, and I understand fully the pressures faced by system integrators who attempt to unite standard and custom hardware with too many flavors of operating systems.
Enter Linux into these spaces as a single unified platform. If it can handle the custom needs of the canyons and fjords, and if it can offer ROI to the integrators who solve specific embedded computing problems with their combinations of hard- and software, then Linux stands a good chance to become the market share leader. This is why I wasn't surprised by Wind River's shift toward Linux support. Or Green Hills recent FUD attack against Linux.
Q6: What challenges does embedded Linux face as a technology?
A6: The key long-term challenge is in the business model, in my opinion — how to make money with Linux. The short-term challenge is to define real-time. My takeaway from the recent Embedded Systems Conference, where I talked with perhaps 100 developers who stopped by the ELC booth — is that “real-time” needs to be defined and applied to Linux in order to end confusion over the operating system's capabilities.
When questioned by experienced Linux developers, it turns out that much of the confusion — certainly more than half — can be categorized in the soft real-time domain, which the current 2.6 distributions handle quite well. ELC members like MontaVista, LynuxWorks, and FSM Labs, among others, address the balance of concern –millisecond and microsecond hard real-time. The ELC needs to do a better job with real-time definitions, and I am pushing this at the board level as something we can do for the benefit of the overall market. Then we can engage in the development of real-time API's as an expansion of the ELCPS.
The long-term challenge — extracting ROI and profit — is a function of the free market, in my opinion. Linux is challenged more by its business model than its technology model. The GPL is at the heart of this discussion, and the ELC is motivated to provide GPL education in the open marketplace of ideas. We mounted panel sessions on the topic at this year's CES show, and recently we agreed to do it again. I am now looking for venues where we can bring together leaders who can help audiences learn how to extract profits from open source software.
The question of making money on Linux, of course, transcends markets. The GPL is at the center of issues in enterprise and desktop Linux, where groups like OSDL, FSF, LI, LPI, and FSG also engage in open marketplace education. My take is that making a profit is not market specific. What works for enterprise will likely work for embedded. Groups like the ELC can and should play an educational role.
Q7: What embedded Linux technology developments do you find exciting?
A7: Please allow me two answers, short term and long term.
I'm a tech junkie always looking for near term gratification. So the consumer space has my attention. I want my wireless Centrino laptop to gather media streams — for example from my Internet connection, my digital camera, camcorder, and mp3 player, and deliver them to TV's and stereos anywhere in my home. When family and guests gather for a holiday celebration, I want to show photos and videos on the family room TV with complete ease (freedom from the need to connect cables, change resolutions, struggle with blank screens or no sound, etc.).
When my wife requests that I visit the Internet to gather recipes for Baked Ziti, I no longer want to simply print out some pages for her consideration. Instead, I want her to be able to watch a digital video of Baked Ziti preparation, from the Food Channel or some other stream source, on demand, at the point of need, namely the kitchen.
If my grandchildren or even my dog has an illness, I'd like to be able to effortlessly and transparently gain the collective wisdom of others by using the same resources. It's just not that hard anymore to build custom real-time teleconferences with exiting hardware and software in the hands of non-specialists (like our family doctor or vet).
And, I'd like to be able to vote in our local, regional, and national elections this same way.
All of these developments are taking place now, with many more examples of functionality that will benefit all of us in the near term.
Mid-term, I'm aware of interesting developments that promise to improve our lives in even more important ways. For example, sensors attached to an embedded computer that enjoys Internet connectivity can help us cut down doctor and hospital visits. With inexpensive instrumentation that we either own or rent, diagnosis can be achieved without leaving home. It's a new form of real-time house call that will be welcomed everywhere.
One side note of importance. I see more upside for Linux in health care than in most other markets. This is because most of the technological investment in health care focuses on drugs and procedures, not on information technology. There is just a huge opportunity out there for pervasive health care solutions based on open source and Linux.
On the automotive front, our developed economies also have the highest reliance on fossil fuels. Embedded and open source software technology is likely to help out more than most people realize. For example, we are quickly entering the period of hybrid vehicles that rely on embedded computers for their efficiency. Linux is playing an important role in these developments. By this time next year, nearly every major automaker will offer one or more hybrids. Around 30 models are in the pipeline. Obviously, OS competitors for this kind of application must demonstrate qualities such as reliability and real-time performance. Linux is well suited, and its low total cost of ownership is likely to win this market and others like it.
Open source software and Linux can also play an important long term unifying role in Government. My resume includes several years in aerospace, where I learned that Government and DoD applications mirror the broader market for all kinds of computers. It sure makes sense to me to promote the ELCPS as a commercial, off-the-shelf unifying platform in this market, contrasted with far too many proprietary solutions that cost taxpayers far too much and by definition rule out interoperability and reusable software. The ELCPS enables program managers to rule things in, not out.
Q8: Can you share one or two of your organization's most exciting successes?
A8: Our most exciting success came at the start, when companies around the globe rallied to join and support our mission. It was a clear and eloquent signal. The era of proprietary operating systems controlling our development destiny had drawn to an end. We could see the source code, and as a result our future based on open source gets brighter every day.
Q9: How about a failure?
A9: Speaking organizationally, I'm annoyed by the way in which many trade associations lost members during the economic downturn we've experienced over the last 3 years, exacerbated as it was by world terrorism. As robust as the ELC was at launch and for our first two years, we now find ourselves rebuilding. There's a lot of road kill out there — companies who were too weak or poorly financed to survive. But there are a lot of survivors and new starts. We need to get these companies back into membership to get more shoulders behind our missions.
I also think that the overall open source industry has failed to fully communicate the values of open source software. This has become an opportunity to create a virtual “Redmond” for open source software. The world of commerce is used to single point news and information sources. Detroit says “this,” Redmond says “that,” Washington disagrees, Paris argues, Tokyo waffles. Linux has no political Detroit, Redmond, Washington, Paris or Tokyo.
Open source advocates are mostly reactive to news events and FUD, rather than proactive. I'm annoyed by the way in which FUD gains traction in headlines due to the marketing machine owned by a single, deep pocket. I am hopeful that groups like the ELC can shift gears to become proactive as legitimate representatives of constituencies whose collective voice represents equal value. Then we can prevent FUD, rather than spend our valuable time defending against it.
Q10: What's your vision of the future for embedded Linux? That is, how big will the embedded Linux market get, and when will it start to reach that peak?
A10: My own opinion is that we have entered the super exponential phase — we are at the tipping point in 2004 in all embedded markets. While I'm not equipped to provide estimates with dollar signs, Enterprise Linux already enjoys double-digital share of the deployed market. I feel confident that embedded Linux will achieve double-digit actual share of the deployed market by the end of 2004. Desktop will achieve double-digit in 2005 or 6. By 2010, embedded Linux will enjoy 50 percent or more market share and Linux in general will have global mind share in the same range.
I'll also stick my neck out and predict that the world's largest software applications company will begin porting to Linux within two years.
Q11: How do you see the 2.6 kernel affecting the embedded Linux market?
A11: Answered above. 2.6 is the best thing to happen for embedded because it brings popular economies of scale as well as embedded-centric features and thus decreases the development cost of embedded apps that use popular technologies like USB.
Q12: Any comments on the SCO mess?
A12: You may be sorry you asked. These are my personal views, not ELC views.
I have always considered SCO “theatre of the absurd.” And Groklaw.net is the venue or stage where the best actors play. Sure, there are respected folks who say that real legal matters are being contested. My view is that our treasured way of life is what makes an SCO (or a Green Hills) possible, so let it play out, enjoy it, and learn from it. The system is working even if you get so mad you'd like to toss a figurative punch or two. In the mid-run, open source and Linux will win.
We have dysfunctional families, why not dysfunctional companies as well? My experience says that much of what we see and hear begins as “personal” to someone — an issue of pride or hurt feelings or arrogance. Individuals and groups like SCO or Green Hills have difficulty getting above their own psychology to look at the bigger picture. They are clouded and conflicted by their feelings, and via PR firms and legal teams willing to accept their money (and equally greedy investors willing to give them money), they rationalize that a jury will agree with them, or the media will promote their agenda.
Now to my real view. I stated it earlier in a different form when I claimed that there is no “Redmond” in open source. Well, SCO has provided a temporary solution. There is no way that any organization — ELC or otherwise — could gain as much positive press for open source software in general and Linux in particular as SCO has done. Yeah, I know, positive press for Linux is hardly the intention of SCO. But, positive press is what SCO has achieved, the FUD notwithstanding any earnest examination. Whatever the source of SCO's funding, the open source community could not have purchased better PR at any price.
Why is this? Because of the absurd, that's why. By coming at the open source community as they have, SCO has increased the dynamic range of the volume of the competing messages. In usual situations — when reason governs argument — we hear both sides at the same relative decibel level. But SCO has placed unreasonable arguments on the table, getting our attention in the process. They have made our “hearing” super sensitive. Now, when the open source community offers a robust defense, everyone is tuned in because unreasonable (actually, outrageous) arguments got our attention in the first place.
By being unreasonable, SCO has made sure we all have a dog in this fight. And we are cheering for our dog. In the end, I think we'll all grudgingly thank SCO for actually accelerating the acceptance of Linux and open source software by giving it such a wonderful theater to display its clear virtues.
There are other legal issues with more impact on open source and Linux. If the open source community wants to pay attention to a real case with real potential impact, take a look at InterTrust. By now, I'm sure you have heard of it. This case deals with digital content piracy. Microsoft just settled with InterTrust by paying $440 million. Titans in consumer electronics own InterTrust and they have a digital rights management patent portfolio dating back more than a decade. As Linux wins designs in consumer electronics, InterTrust stands to reap rewards through IP licensing. I have no doubt that InterTrust will be in the news (and in the pockets of those who plan on distributing digital content) long after SCO fades.
Q13: What do you think about Wind River's recent steps into the embedded Linux market?
A13:I think the industry perspective is to celebrate Wind River's new strategy. It clearly benefits everyone to have the engineering prowess of companies like Wind River behind open source software. And, of course, the ELC would welcome them back as a member. Wind River was on our original Formation Committee.
About the interviewee — Together with Rick Lehrbaum, Murry co-founded the ELC as a pro bono effort, instantly becoming Executive Director as a half-time job that evolved rapidly to time-and-a-half. Over the first year, Murry helped drive membership to more than 140 corporations and individuals.
A long time Silicon Valley journalist and PR practitioner, Murry's exposure to the embedded computing industry includes the launch of the VMEbus, PC/104 Plus, and other notable interconnect technologies. Murry has worked with many integrated circuit companies, board developers, operating system vendors, and publishers as a manager, consultant, editor, and writer.
This article was originally published on LinuxDevices and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit LinuxToday.com for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.