Linux carves a niche in the PDA market

Take a look at how and why the Linux PDA market has evolved to meet the needs of businesses.

With Sharp Electronics’ rollout of the Zaurus, Linux has been getting more attention as a viable platform for handheld devices. One obvious draw is that many developers and tech enthusiasts like using the open-source OS whenever possible. IT pros toiling in a Linux environment likely prefer to put PDAs on the same platform. While Linux-based PDAs have undeniable appeal for tech shops, device manufacturers certainly want a share of the consumer market, as well. And that may happen sooner than most think, as both market newcomers and traditional device manufacturers are bringing Linux system products to the marketplace. But what will propel Linux devices toward widespread adoption is user satisfaction.

Linux offerings on the rise
With a list price of $499, the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 is at the higher end of the PDA market. But there are less-expensive options. Royal Consumer Business Products, for example, is taking a crack at the low end with its daVinci PDA ($99). That’s a bit cheaper than its competitors, such as the Palm m105 ($149) and Handspring Visor Platinum ($149). Although the daVinci is a very basic model that won’t interest many IT pros, it does provide an alternative OS for consumers and students.

A number of smaller vendors have entered the market in the last several years. Empower Technologies, for example, has embedded Linux OS and hardware under its Linux DA brand. In addition to the PowerPlay V PDA, the company plans to use the OS in developing “intelligent appliances.”

If you don’t want to buy new hardware, Empower markets Linux DA software for Palm IIIx devices. Empower claims that its Linux DA system is faster and more powerful than the Palm OS, and that the device is fully compatible with Palm’s hardware.

Software-only solutions are popping up from other companies, too. For example, open-source advocates are working on a Linux-based OS as an alternative to the Pocket PC operating system on the Compaq iPac. The effort is part of the Familiar project at, an ad hoc group working to develop open-source software for handheld devices.

A great place to keep up with all the developments is This portal offers news, how-to articles, discussions, and reference materials for developers.

Synchronization "easy"
TechRepublic members Adrian Kunzle, atechnology vice president with a private banking firm, and Mike Gilger, CTO of Identitech, were early adopters of Sharp’s Zaurus and are pleased with the PDA.

Synchronization capability was a high priority for both executives. Kunzle has found that the Zaurus syncs well with Outlook and Palm Desktop, and he’s been able to load all the data he needs and keep it updated fairly easily.

“The funny thing is,” Kunzle stated, “because the device is so capable, I find synchronization less important as the Zaurus becomes my primary device. I’m now backing up to an SD card more than I’m synchronizing.”

Gilger wrote in a recent e-mail that the device required little setup effort, other than telling the system which Exchange server to use. Some colleagues who use Palm OS or Windows CE are quite impressed, Gilger said. “I still hear complaints about how hard it was to tweak the other two products just to get them visible to the PCs they wanted to sync with.”

Kunzle, who travels frequently, also likes the Zaurus’ ability to communicate through a variety of connections. At home, he connects to a wireless LAN with an 802.11 card in the CF slot. At work, he connects through the SharpMobile Pocket Spider CDPC modem. He can even connect from Europe using dialup via the IR port on his Ericsson tri-band phone.

“Each connection happily coexists, and none of them took more than 30 seconds to set up,” Kunzle wrote. “In fact, next time I’m in London, I probably won’t take my laptop at all.” Although he has connected with his networks quite easily, Kunzle hopes that Sharp adds Bluetooth capability in future versions.

Familiar apps and interface
The two executives also had good things to say about applications performance. Kunzle was pleased with the Word and Excel edit capability, although he’d like to see it extended to PowerPoint (at this point, users can only view presentation slides).

But the application that has garnered great affinity is Opera, the PDA browser. That got the attention of the high-tech engineers at Gilger’s company, who use all Microsoft products.

“You can imagine the rolling eyes and looks of disdain that I received after I picked up a device that wasn’t running a Microsoft operating system,” Gilger wrote. “Then I showed them a full browser (Opera).” After capturing their attention, Gilger showed them that the device was easy to update and that he could even code his own programs in the Linux-based OS.

Thoughtful design
It’s always a challenge for engineers to make a full-featured device that will fit into a pocket, and the Zaurus is no different. Kunzle likes its “thumb” keyboard, a small version of a standard QWERTY keyboard that is protected under a sliding cover when not in use. The removable battery is another plus for the device.

Both Gilger and Kunzle were pleased that the SD and CF slots give them a couple of options for storing data. The SD slot accepts cards in the secure digital format, and the CF slot accepts cards in SanDisk’s CompactFlash format.

The hardware clearly has some features that impress tech-oriented users, but would the Linux-based OS be easy enough for the average person to use? According to Kunzle, the Trolltech Qtopia interface “hides Linux, unless you want to dig under the covers.” He described the UI as clean and easy to use.

“It proves what I always suspected about Linux—it hasn’t been tidied up yet because the geeks can’t be bothered.” Gilger also finds the Qtopia environment easy to use, and he’s also looking forward to plenty of applications to come from open-source developers.

Although he’s happy with the SL-5500, Gilger thinks Zaurus could go much further in terms of capabilities and design. “When they create a large monitor and keyboard interface—so that when it’s docked, I can use it as a full PC—then I wonder if I will even need my PC.”

What’s your favorite PDA platform?
Are you a dedicated fan of the Palm or Pocket PC operating systems? Or perhaps you favor a particular flavor of embedded Linux for your PDA? Start a discussion or drop us a line and tell why your OS is best.


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