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China MobileSoft: Embedded Linux in China

Mar 29, 2002 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive

Everybody seems to be interested in China these days. It represents a rapidly growing, potentially huge market for technology products of all kinds. Our company, China MobileSoft, has been doing business in China in the embedded arena for several years, and we would like to share our view of the opportunities.

It is of course not possible to present a complete or highly detailed picture of Embedded Linux in China in the space allowed by this article. So what we intend is a general summary of trends, markets, and the significant Chinese providers/developers of embedded Linux. If there is significant indication of interest, we will be pleased to expand on the various topics in subsequent articles.

The press, analysts, and armchair prognosticators have filled the information highways with opinions, predictions, and theories about what is really happening in China and in the Chinese technology markets. In reality, what we are dealing with is an emerging market in a highly diverse country that is still feeling its way into the 21st century. The obvious point here is that it is generally more difficult to get accurate market information and identify trends than it is in Western markets. For us, the most effective way to gather realistic and useful market intelligence has been to focus on our customer base, visit trade shows, and participate in the major industry associations. We regularly track and are in contact with the top 200 embedded device makers in China, including all the major phone, PDA, and Internet appliance manufacturers, many of which are currently our customers.

Having said this, we are true believers in the tremendous potential in the Chinese markets in general, and in the future of embedded Linux in China in particular. Some time ago LinuxDevices.com published an article entitled Linux and Windows square off over devices, that listed ten reasons why Linux would win over Microsoft in the embedded space . . .

    Reason #1: Control — With Linux you have access to the source code

    Reason #2: Support — With open source there are many more experts to review code and fix bugs

    Reason #3: Rapid Innovation — The nature of the open source model enables embedded Linux to rapidly evolve to meet the needs of the embedded community

    Reason #4: Linux is cool — Attracts the best talent

    Reason #5: The price is right — Pricing is inexpensive and very flexible

    Reason #6: It's about choice — Many sources/suppliers to choose from

    Reason #7: The Internet — Support for the Internet is an integral part of Linux

    Reason #8: Reliability — 99.999% up time

    Reason #9: Flexibility — Linux is inherently modular and scalable

    Reason #10: It's not from Microsoft — No explanation required

All these factors contribute to the popularity of embedded Linux in China, and in many cases have an even stronger influence. For example, low cost, open source, and alternatives to Microsoft are particularly important. The open source model is important because China wants to develop its own IP and software industry, and Linux can be embraced as a foundation of that effort.

For China, we can add an 11th reason to adopt Linux that may be as important as all the others combined . . .

    Reason #11: Direct support from the Chinese government — The Chinese government strongly encourages the use of Linux and has made numerous public statements to that effect.

In fact, the Chinese government has provided financial support to Redflag Linux Software, which was set up by the Chinese Academy of Sciences with the express purpose of challenging Microsoft. Senior officials from the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (MII), which is responsible for regulating telecom and software, have bluntly stated that the move to support Linux will break the monopoly of the Windows operating system in China.

This government support gives Linux an impetus and legitimacy that it has no place else in the world. For this reason, and because Linux really is the best solution for China, we believe that China is likely to be where Linux will establish its first major foothold. A recent development supporting this point of view is that on December 28, 2001, the Beijing municipal government awarded contracts to six local software vendors, and rejected the seventh bidder, which was Microsoft. The contract covered office automation, antivirus, and operating system software, with the awards for operating system going to Linux providers like Redflag. This is particularly important because other cities and government organizations tend to follow the precedence set in Beijing.

In 2000, the sales of embedded Linux in China reached RMB 66,000,000 (About $8M), which was 0.9 percent of the total sales of embedded operating systems. There are no official numbers yet for 2001, but from informal reports we believe the sales numbers to be much larger than in 2000 and growing fast. According to a report from the China Center of Information Industry Development (CCID), which is an authorized research agency of MII, in next three years Linux will be the preferred OS for embedded devices with 54.8 percent of the China market. According to the same CCID report, 57.2 percent of developers for embedded devices now intend to focus primarily on Linux.

Embedded Linux providers in China

The best known Chinese developers/providers of Linux, in no particular order, are Redflag, Xteam, MobileSoft, and Pocket IX. There are also Korean (PalmPalm and Mizi) and US (MontaVista and Lineo) companies that are developing a presence in the Chinese market, but for this article the main focus is on Chinese companies.

  • Redflag

    Redflag is a Beijing based company founded by the Software Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It has received significant support and funding from the Chinese government as their vehicle for promoting Linux in China. As mentioned earlier, a recent success is that they have won a contract to provide desktop Linux software for the Beijing municipal government. Redflag's goals have been ambitious, to provide Linux solutions all the way from servers at the top end to embedded systems at the low end. Their initial focus was primarily on desktop and server products, but recently they have increased their interest in embedded devices.

    Redflag's flagship product for embedded applications is ControLinux, a Linux distribution designed for industrial control applications. It consists of two parts: Redflag ControLinux Operating System and Redflag ControLinux EDK Developer Kit. Some examples of design concepts developed using ControLinux include an Internet-ready microwave oven (as part of a general interest in smart appliances), the Jiangsu province lottery machine, and concepts for a PDA and thin client.

  • Xteam

    Xteam Software (China) Co. Ltd. was founded in 1999 to provide individual users and business customers with advanced high-tech Linux OS products and services. They have a range of Linux products that includes XteamServer 3.0 for servers, the award-winning XteamLinux 3.0 for the desktop, and Xteam for embedded systems. They also offer professional technical support and training services for Linux.

    Xteam claims a number of firsts in the Chinese market, including the first Linux company in China, the first Chinese Linux distribution (XteamLinux 1.0), the first deployment of Linux in China (Beijing Government Research Office), and several others. Recently they have announced that they will be concentrating on Linux solutions for the corporate server market.

    Their embedded Linux is designed for set-top boxes, industrial control equipment, communication equipment, ATMs, etc. It comes with all the network support necessary to make it easy to connect devices to the Internet.

  • MobileSoft Technology (Note: the authors are co-founders of this company)

    MobileSoft Technology (Nanjing) is a wholly owned subsidiary of China MobileSoft. Its main facilities are in Nanjing, with sales offices in Beijing, Shenzhen, and Palo Alto, California. In contrast to the preceding companies which provide Linux products for servers and desktop systems as well as embedded systems, MobileSoft focuses entirely on the embedded space.

    MobileSoft's flagship product is mLinux, a total platform solution for smart phones, PDAs, Internet Appliances, etc., that includes everything from a Linux operating system and GUI, to device drivers, network protocols, development tools and APIs, and end- user applications such as a micro browser, PIM functions, stock analyzer, email, MP3 players, games, etc. mLunix is highly modular in design, which enables MobileSoft to provide its customers with custom solutions ranging from the entire platform to selected components such as the Linux kernel, micro browser, end-user applications, etc. Bottom line – give them your hardware (smart phone, PDA, Internet Appliance) and they can provide the software, user-interface, and support to make it work. MobileSoft supports most major chipsets, including Dragonball, MIPS, StrongArm, ARM7 and ARM9, MIPS, x86, and TI's OMAP 710.

    MobileSoft's customer base and sales efforts are focused on the major Chinese manufacturers of PDAs, smart phones, and other Internet appliances. Recently MobileSoft also begun working with major international companies to provide software and services. MobileSoft also has expert software porting and localization services, and has delivered products for many different operating systems, including many of the proprietary Chinese operating systems.

  • Pocket IX

    Pocket IX is a Guangzhou based Chinese company that both develops their own embedded Linux solution, Pocket IX, and distributes MontaVista's embedded Linux products.

    The Pocket IX offerings are tailored to the needs of manufacturers of Internet appliances and other digital devices such as set-top boxes, network TV, intelligent mobile phones, Web phones, and PDAs. They provide a total embedded solution for OEM customers from the hardware platform, to embedded OS, to applications.

    In addition to distributing MontaVista's products in China, PocketIX has set up service and support centers in Beijing and Guangzhou. With this support, the MontaVista Linux distribution won some customers in the telecommunication and industry control areas.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we believe that Linux is right for China and that it has a real chance of becoming the major OS for embedded devices. However, for it to succeed it is important to develop standards, and for companies to cooperate to promote Linux and develop success stories. We will all benefit if Linux becomes the de facto standard in China. Thus we applaud the efforts of the Embedded Linux Consortium and its member companies for their efforts to cooperate on setting standards for the embedded Linux community.

For our part, China MobileSoft and its Chinese subsidiary MobileSoft Technology are anxious to cooperate with other companies, whether as a local partner for the Chinese markets or internationally.



About the authors: John S. Ostrem and Jiping Wang co-founded China MobileSoft.

Ostrem has had more than 25 years experience inventing new technology, developing product prototypes, and creating real products. He has held positions such as CTO and VP of Research and Development in several highly successful Silicon Valley companies. Ostrem graduated from the University of California and began his career as a scientist and researcher at SRI (the former Stanford Research Institute).

Wang, too, has spent many years in Silicon Valley, designing and developing a variety of commercial-grade software for embedded devices such as PDA's, smart phones, and other information appliances.



 
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