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Comdex 2001: Linux PDAs take on Pocket PC

Linux may not have conquered the desktop, but it is making gains in the personal digital assistant market.

Several organisers running Linux were displayed at Comdex, including Sharp's forthcoming Zaurus, which will be the Japanese electronics giant's first PDA for the US market to ship with the operating system installed.

South Korean vendor Gmate showed a device called Yopy, and a German company launched a version of Linux designed to run on Compaq's iPaq.

The battle for acceptance on PDAs depends on having a graphical user interface that is acceptable to users. Sharp's Zarus SL-5000, which is expected to launch early next year, will use Trolltech's Qt interface.

"The market is now starting to accept Linux, and having Sharp on board [makes the market feel comfortable]," said Aron Kozak, Trolltech's product marketing manager for Qt.

The first versions of the Zaurus, which are now being made available to developers, will cost $399 (£280).

Linux has a couple of factors in its favour on PDAs, according to its advocates. "Linux is at least as powerful as [Microsoft's] Pocket PC," Kozak said. "It's also completely scalable - you can shrink it down to nothing."

The Zaurus is based on Intel's StrongARM 206MHz processor, the same chip used in the iPaq and Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) Jornada PDA, both of which run Pocket PC software.

The deal with Sharp was completed after a developer at the Japanese firm downloaded Trolltech's software on to an iPaq device and decided that he liked it, Kozak said.

Interest among users in downloading Linux for the iPaq is eclipsing handheld computers that are sold with Linux pre-installed, according to one analyst. "Although there are probably less than 1% of iPaqs that are running Linux, it's probably talked about as much as all the other [Linux PDAs] combined," said Todd Kort, a principal analyst at Gartner.

Tuxia, a German company that makes an embedded version of Linux, launched a downloadable version of the operating system for iPaqs.

Between 300 and 400 versions of the software were downloaded in one day, said Anthony O'Sullivan, Tuxia's vice-president of marketing. "Up to then, we had about 150 downloads in total," he said.

Tuxia has started porting its version of Linux to XScale, a follow-on of Intel's StrongARM family of processors. Although XScale is currently not in circulation, Tuxia wants to be ready when the chip appears in future PDAs from HP, Compaq and others, O'Sullivan said.

However, he acknowledged what some see as a significant stumbling block for Linux on PDAs - just as it was for the operating system when it tried to make headway on the desktop. "The gating factor [between Linux and Pocket PC] is definitely the development of applications," O'Sullivan said. "We need to get people to port more software to it."

Tuxia has toyed with the idea of building a Linux portal that would provide a central repository for Linux PDA applications, he said.

O'Sullivan is hopeful that the user base for Linux PDAs will grow in the coming six to nine months, but admits that it could prove a tough battle, particularly since Compaq has not even endorsed the operating system on its handheld gadgets.

"We won't support [iPaq] if someone puts Linux on it," said a Compaq spokeswoman. "We do make the iPaq available to certified Linux developers, but they have to be developers," she added.

"[Linux on the iPaq] may be attractive if you have some programming talent and want to do some internal development, but I'm seeing more of an Asian phenomenon where they're just trying to get the costs down by using Linux," Kort said.

Gmate's Yopy handheld comes with Linux pre-installed. The device is set to go on sale in Korea next month, with shipments in the US scheduled for the first quarter of 2002, said Seung-Chae Cheong, Gmate's local market manager.

The device packs 64Mbytes of main memory and runs the Linupy Linux operating system for StrongARM-based processors, as well as X Windows. This should provide users with access to hundreds of applications developed to run on X Windows, as well as a standard platform on which new applications can be developed, according to company officials.

"The great thing about Linux is that it's both free and more scalable than other operating systems," Cheong said.

Gmate's device will cost about $400 in both South Korea and the US.

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