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What distribution will your handheld system run? Palm Computing's dominance in the handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) market seems to be coming to an end. The new PDA systems provide far more power and functionality; they are full-strength computers in their own right. And Linux is the obvious system to run on them. But it will be interesting to see which Linux that will be.
At the moment, the company that most obviously appears to be making a determined effort to be the supplier of Linux for handheld systems is Lineo. Sharp's new Linux-based PDA uses Lineo's distribution and tools, of course; according to this announcement the next generation PDA (which will be sold in the U.S.) will also be developed with Lineo.
Lineo has also announced a deal with Insignia, Opera, and Trolltech to create "Embedix Plus for Smart Handheld Devices." The carefully-worded release describes the "open standards platform" which will be developed by these companies. It will doubtless be a well-designed system, but it will not be an "open source" platform. Don't expect to be able to download your copy anytime soon.
The other company that is making a try for handheld systems is Transvirtual, with its PocketLinux system. At a first glance, PocketLinux appears to be grinding to a halt - there has been no release since 1.0 in January, and mailing list traffic has slowed to a stop. One could be forgiven for thinking that things look grim for those wanting to run a 100% free system on their PDAs. Appearances can be deceptive, however.
Transvirtual has been quiet, evidently, due to a move into a new, larger office in San Francisco. There are also rumors about a new round of financing that is to be announced soon. But it does seem that there will be a major change with PocketLinux - new releases are going to be based on a different system, called Familiar.
Familiar is a bit of a stealth project; your editor must confess to having been ignorant of it until recently. A quick look, though, reveals that work on a free handheld distribution is proceeding nicely. Familiar is a new distribution being produced as part of the Handhelds.org project; it is currently oriented toward the Compaq iPAQ system, but, as it stabilizes, it will certainly be ported to other platforms as well.
Familiar is loosely based on the Debian ARM distribution, but it uses its own (smaller, simpler) package manager ("ipkg"). Much of the development work on handheld applications (the first appears to be a contact manager) is being done with Python, Gtk, and GDK. The 0.4 release came out on May 14.
The Familiar distribution looks like it will be the base for most other free handheld systems. As mentioned, PocketLinux will be using it; Transvirtual will undoubtedly add Kaffe and a bunch of other Java goodies as well. The Intimate distribution adds full Debian package management, at the cost of not fitting into a minimally-equipped iPAQ.
As the next generations of handheld systems arrive, the commercial distributors will doubtless come out with high-quality products that run on them. But the work on Familiar (and derivatives) is important - it is defining the shape, and providing much of the source, that future handheld distributions will have. Now if only those iPAQ systems were a little cheaper...
The empire strikes harder. For those who still haven't seen it, this interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in the Chicago Sun Times is worth a look. Here are his comments on Linux:
Open source is not available to commercial companies. The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source. If the government wants to put something in the public domain, it should. Linux is not in the public domain. Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That's the way that the license works.
We are, of course, getting used to critical comments from Microsoft. As the company gets more worried, the attacks are becoming more frequent and more pointed. Even so, describing Linux as "a cancer" seems like a bit much. Even for Steve Ballmer. The only rational response is to laugh.
The worst part of those comments, however, is not the comparison between free software and deadly diseases. It is this line:
The way the license is written, if you use any open-source software, you have to make the rest of your software open source.
Anybody who has looked at free software licenses at all knows that the above is not true - even for the GPL, which is far from the only free license. The CEO of Microsoft can be reasonably expected to know what he is talking about when criticising the competition. Words like "unamerican" or "cancer" are value judgements. The above, instead, is a blatant, deliberate lie.
Microsoft, clearly, wants to scare companies away from Linux with this sort of untruth. It seems unlikely to work. Quite a few companies are working with free software, and there is a distinct lack of horror stories about those companies losing the rights to their own software. Even the most risk-averse of companies will eventually figure that one out. But we have seen how the opposition plans to play; it's going to be an interesting time.
For a longer analysis of Mr. Ballmer's comments, see this missive from Eric Raymond. "In the open-source community, we have a favorite quote from Mohandas Gandhi: 'First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.' Evidently, we're getting close to winning."
Craig Mundie to speak at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention. When an opponent is spreading untruths, often the best thing to do is to shine a light on what they are saying. So O'Reilly is to be congratulated for its announcement that Microsoft VP Craig Mundie will be presenting the "shared source" program at the Open Source Convention, to be held in San Diego next month. Mr. Mundie will be followed by Michael Tiemann, who will take the "open source" side. There will then be a panel discussion.
This event is likely to draw some media attention. Given the setting, Mr. Mundie will not be able to get away with untruthful statements about free software, so he is likely to come off in a rather different light. Maybe he'll even learn something. We're looking forward to the event.
Another DMCA lawsuit - with a twist. Here's a press release from the EFF about a lawsuit launched by Professor Edward Felten and associates against the RIAA, the SDMI, Verance, and the U.S. Justice Department. Essentially, the suit is asking the court to rule that Prof. Felten may present his paper on the cracking of the SDMI watermarking system without fear of legal reprisal. The legal route is being taken because, among other things, a simple "permission note" from the SDMI would not be sufficient. The point, of course, is that researchers should not have to ask permission from corporate interests before publishing their findings.
More information on the action, including the full text of the legal filing, may be found on the EFF's 'Felten v. RIAA' page. We wish them luck.
Penguin Gallery update. After far too much delay, the LWN.net Penguin Gallery has been updated by Dennis Tenney. There are now some 350 penguins on 13 pages; some of them are quite imaginative. Have a look to see what Tux has been up to...
Time for a thank-you note. Last week we posted a reader survey and a request for volunteers to fill it out for us. We have received thousands of responses over the last week, despite the fact that numerous people had difficulties with the Tucows survey form. We greatly appreciate all of you who have taken the time to fill out the survey and provide us with much-needed information. One of the best things about producing LWN is the quality of readers we have been able to attract. Thanks!
We're just beginning to look at the results of the survey; several hundred of you supplied additional comments, so it's going to take us a while. We'll get back to you with what we learned once the process is complete.
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June 7, 2001