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Hi all – I have been out of touch this past week or so with the holiday & putting together my upcoming BeagleBoard presentation at OSCON Weds 7/21 at 2:30pm, where I’ll be booting and demonstrating several flavors of Linux, including Angstrom, Android, MontaVista Linux 6, and possibly Ubuntu and/or MeeGo as well. Whatever we don’t get to at the talk can be covered at the Embedded Linux BoF to follow that evening at 7pm. I will also have a BeagleBoard xM to show and perhaps one or two other goodies. Hope to see you there!

UPDATE: If you are planning to go and haven’t registered, contact me for a 20% discount code.

While in Portland that week, I will also have the pleasure of helping to coordinate the second annual Community Leadership Summit. This unconference-style summit is a fantastic gathering place for community leaders in all walks of life. The focus is truly on building community rather than the nuances of Twitter vs. Facebook (though certainly that will probably be covered as well) and the event is free, though registration is required. See the website for details.

Nokia and Intel made headlines yesterday by introducing MeeGo, a merger of Nokia‘s Maemo platform and Intel‘s Moblin, which was put under the auspices of the Linux Foundation last year.

Bloggers from the Linux Foundation are propounding the news, as they should—Moblin is now under their purview, so they were the ones who decided it should be merged. However, at least one dissenting viewpoint comes form Vision Mobile’s “Thucydides Sigs” (best nom de plume I have seen in a while), who proclaims that “Two (M)onkeys don’t make a (G)orilla. But they sure make a lot of noise“.

“Thucydides” makes a few interesting points. One is the obvious, that Android is swamping the mobile market right now, leaving both Maemo and Moblin behind in the mobile consumer electronics space. The move also enables Maemo to enter into Moblin’s markets, including automotive, which is by some accounts the fastest-growing embedded sector.

The dissenting view in the article is actually more an observation on motive. Intel’s involvement means something to Nokia and Maemo that is reminiscent of what it meant to Wind River Linux when Intel bought Wind River last year—a perceived threat to take market share away from ARM. Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen. Wind River continues to provide support for ARM processors, despite some warnings from pundits, though it continues to fall behind MontaVista’s rising star.

My opinion? “Thucydides” is playing devil’s advocate here with a snappy headline, but showing us in the meat of the article what is plainly obvious: this merger is good for embedded Linux in general, rising the tide and lifting all of us little boats.

While stealing market share may have been Intel’s motive for this merger, I am frankly not sure it matters. What is certain is that two promising yet fragmentary major open-source projects have merged to form a single project much stronger than either of them would have been alone, and what’s more, they have unique opportunities that place them in partly the same market as Android—providing healthy competition—and partly in orthogonal markets, increasing the reach of embedded open-source software greatly and further increasing choice for developers. As a developer’s advocate, I have to get behind that.

FD: I work for MontaVista, w00t!

[Full disclosure: I work for MontaVista]

Cavium Networks announced Friday that the acquisition of MontaVista is complete. MontaVista Software, Inc. is now MontaVista Software, LLC.

When we all found out in a company meeting on November 10 that MontaVista was being acquired, no one really knew what to think. We have been doing business with Cavium for years, providing operating systems for its industry-leading networking equipment, but it was a surprise to find that they wanted to own us. It was not readily apparent in those first few minutes why we would be of interest to a company whose rising star shines on hardware rather than software. However, over the past month we have all learned a bit about each other, and some of the big win-win scenarios I initially described in my blog post on the subject are absolutely true. (Yes, I consider myself to be prescient!)

Cavium is in a very unique position to explode onto a hungry marketplace with solutions in nearly every quarter for embedded and semi-embedded Linux. By embedded I mean hard embedded devices and appliances, automotive and aerospace control systems, networking equipment, and so on. These are the devices on which both Cavium and MontaVista have focused until now, and they will continue to be a very strong focus going forward, especially in terms of MontaVista’s Carrier Grade Linux offering.

By “semi-embedded” I mean devices that traditionally have used a hard embedded and/or real-time operating system (RTOS) but are now being recast in the marketplace as more general-purpose devices, including smartphones, netbooks, set-top devices, automotive “infotainment” systems (IVI), and the universe of new possibilities opening up with the proliferation of 3G and 4G cellular internet service. Mashups that were once the realm of science fiction are now commonplace. The combination of GPS and broadband internet means I can ask my cellphone what the weather is like and it will tell me, right where I am standing, with very few clues as to what I want. These systems are much more complex than traditional embedded devices, and must take input from a wide variety of sources, including a user whose expectations are being continually reset.

This is a market where all companies are newcomers, and both Cavium and MontaVista are well-positioned to dive in. There are other companies in similar positions, two in particular—not to name any names—but one is now tied to a massive single-platform system that is not ideally suited to hard- or semi-embedded, and the other is highly focused on very specific embedded applications. No one else in the embedded Linux sector, or frankly in the entire embedded marketplace, has the flexibility that the Cavium/MontaVista merger brings to the table. The combined force of a highly flexible hardware and software provider make this a very exciting place to be at this point in history.

I started writing this post back in May, but got sidetracked and never finished it, partly because it sounded like sour grapes from someone who has used a netbook and didn’t like the user experience. The thing is, I don’t use a netbook, never wanted to use one, and the few times I have seen them I didn’t like the user experience. That’s the real reason I didn’t finish the post—I didn’t want to comment on something I didn’t know well.

[Note: If this looks familiar, I am plagiarizing myself syndicating from my other blog at MontaVista]

It looks like I’m not the only one. Jason Hiner of TechRepublic today announced the death of the netbook on his blog. While I think death may be a little premature to declare, I think doom is certain called for, despite Larry Dignan’s rebuttal on ZDnet. And I don’t want to leave out Laptop Magazine’s Mark Spoonauer, who also declares death and even provides a headstone.

The thing is, I really want to like netbooks. They would solve many problems in my life while introducing few others. I don’t mind small screens, can cope with small keyboards for a limited time, and I know precisely which apps require which hardware to run effectively. I even had a “netbook” once, a little Psion that fit my pocket, but I eventually abandoned it. What I don’t want is:

  1. yet another device to feed—laptop and (non-smart) cell phone are plenty, thanks
  2. a new algorithm for syncing local data, as not everything lives in the cloud (yet)(thankfully)
  3. any device that solves 75% of a problem, yet requires 110% of my personal budget and replicates a device I already have (see #1)

Furthermore, I don’t think they are too expensive for what they are. Dropping prices will not sell more netbooks. Increasing performance will not sell more, either. Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that would cause me to augment my existing stable of computing power with yet another device, and that is the rub.

I am exactly the target market for netbooks, yet I don’t want one. That is why they will fail. There are a lot of people like me out there. We are already glutted with devices. Netbooks solve the same problems as notebooks, but at a higher price and with fewer options and lower performance. Smallness on its own is not a feature that grabs me unless it gets small enough that I can put it in my pocket.

All of this is based on my opinion. I am not presenting a very logical argument here because the market is not a logical beast. It is capricious and fickle, which is precisely why good ideas very often fail. To understand it, the logical thinker must shelve the logic and think like a fickle beast. The cost of failure is too high to depend on logic in a capricious world.

That being said, there are logical arguments, and Jason Hiner makes them quite well. The “that’s neat” response is not a long-term market driver. We encountered this at Transmeta back in 1999 trying to come up with a reference design for tablets—we called them “webpads”, and they bear a marked resemblance to today’s e-book readers, but they never took off (they were also far too expensive). For that matter, I think it remains to be seen whether e-book readers will take off, though as a device built to improve a specific user experience by using a people-friendly interface—e-ink in this case—they stand a good chance.

What I think might fit the sweet spot a little more closely is something like Dell’s new Latitude ON, which embeds a netbook-ish device inside a laptop. The tiny ARM-powered board shares keyboard, screen, and network connection and surfs and emails for 18 hours or more, and if I want more horsepower I can just push a button to boot or wake up the full laptop. That is a compromise I can live with. *

So, kudos to the netbook folks for trying. But what about MIDs? Are they in the same boat? I think that remains to be seen—the iTouch and Nokia N800 devices have certainly been popular among my geeky friends, but I have yet to see one in use that isn’t shadowed by the propeller on the user’s hat. It’s the “that’s neat” response again. I want to want one, but in reality I can’t justify it to my bank account or to my daily workflow. My immediate feeling is that the next generation of smartphones—especially the Motorola Droid—will make MIDs obsolete, but this will only happen in the US if they can break away from the usage models dominated by the carriers. The total cost of ownership is far, far too high. (See Droid and other smartphones compared by TCO.)

Here’s yet another angle: what is the logical difference between a MID that can read e-books, and an e-book reader that can browse the web? How about MID vs. smartphone? Which one would you buy, and why? Don’t be afraid to be illogical and capricious.

The main takeaway from all of this is that making a market in personal electronics is hard, and it is not getting easier or more obvious as technology improves. Making a market means building a product that provides a 100% solution for enough buyers to justify the cost of development, period. If that market is small or unsustainable, then it’s not a revolution, it’s a fad.

Code safely out there.

* Full disclosure: As it has now been officially announced, I can proudly say that MontaVista Montabello is running the Latitude ON, and that I helped work on the project. Actually I already said it, but now I can say it.