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Linux PDAs: There's Rustling in the Bushes

by Derrick Story
09/01/2000

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The PDA landscape is coming into focus. Palm has established a wide user base and appeals to developers who want broad exposure to their applications. The PocketPC, round three, has emerged with both guns blazing, offering beautiful color resolution, multimedia, and seamless integration with Windows desktop computers. And the Linux PDAs, er, well, are rare and definitely niche oriented.

As we scan the Linux horizon, two devices in particular, the Yopy and the PocketLinux, have caught the eye of those yearning for a Linux-based PDA.

I originally discussed the Yopy PDA back in May 2000 with the article All Linux PDA, Fact or Fiction?. At the time of the article, the Yopy was much more promise than actual PDA. Despite the hype and a sensational debut at CeBIT in Hanover, Germany, I could not get my hands on a Yopy for actual testing. In order to give them the benefit of the doubt, I promised to revisit the Yopy web site in August because they had stated that was their "hard and fast" delivery date. "No more delays!" they proclaimed. So, as promised, we'll see what the Yopy folks are up to today.

PocketLinux, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to this space. They occupied one of the most popular booths at the recent LinuxWorld in San Jose, CA, and have taken a different road to Linux PDA nirvana by writing the software and porting it to existing devices. I'll also take a look at their new offering in the second part of this article.

Yopy Stuck in Beta

The Yopy PDA

Yopy Rendering: When images of the Yopy were first released, many marveled at its sleek beauty -- that was before the iPaq seized the market.

Just to review, the Yopy is a Linux-based PDA sporting iPaq-like specs:

Originally, the Yopy was scheduled for release in May of 2000. They suffered through a series of delays throughout the spring. In order to quell the rants of their frustrated potential customers, GMATE (the creators of Yopy) promised a mid-August release -- no more delays! As the summer wore on, with beta testing nowhere in site, it became clear that the August deadline was going to be tough to meet.

Finally, beta testing began on July 27. On August 18, Yopy posted a project update on their site stating, "Since our first beta version of Yopy has been released, some bugs have been reported by our beta testers, and we are now working on fixing them. In addition, several additional functions will be provided to our testers on 20th August including Sync program, sound, Digital camera, etc. (programs for managing system resources)."

Beleaguered followers of the project began asking for some of the findings documented by the beta testers in order to gauge the actual progress of the project. The Yopy folks responded that the information was confidential and refused to comment further. In one company response, however, they did predict a new release date:

We feel very sorry to delay many times the release date. YOPY is not release yet which is on the stage of reliable test from the production preparation. We are targeting to put it out in the end of this year when it will usually go on the OEM market and enterprise market for the easy maintenance in the initial launching stage. We know that we failed the YOPY, Linux lover many times who wait to see and use from our introduction in the Cevit show in the respect of release date. We will make an all effort to meet the above schedule and beg your pardon.

The basic bulletin board response from fading followers was, "yeah, right."

I'll check-in again with the Yopy folks at the end of the year.

PocketLinux debuts at Aug. 2000 LinuxWorld

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, people were standing elbow to elbow at the PocketLinux booth hoping that Transvirtual's new product was the answer to their Linux PDA dreams. Whether it's dreams or disappointments that prevail will most likely depend on what folks are looking for this company to deliver.

PocketLinux draws a crowd.

Drawing a Crowd: What are all those folks looking at? They're watching Linux/Java/XML running on an iPaq at the recent LinuxWorld in San Jose, CA.

If, for example, you're hoping for a prepackaged, plug-and-play Linux PDA like the Pocket PC, then you'll be disappointed. (But you knew better than to hope for that.) However, if you're aching for an open source platform that works on a variety of appliances (including PDAs) using Linux, Java, and XML, then PocketLinux may become your favorite new toy.

The goal for the PocketLinux project is to build a standardized, open platform that can efficiently share information across all types of hardware and processors. Currently they're focusing on PDAs -- two in particular, the VTech Helio and the Compaq iPaq -- but in theory the software can run on virtually any device.

The PocketLinux platform is distributed as open source under the GNU General Public License and consists of these components:

Using PocketLinux

The iPaq.

First You Remove the Operating System: That's after you've just paid $500 for this beautiful iPaq. Then you install the PocketLinux OS. We suggest you experiment on a $179 VTech Helio instead.

The hopes, dreams, and specs of the product are one thing, but what most people want to know is how to start using the PocketLinux right now. The answer is, first you get your hands on a:

In either case, users replace the shipped software with the PocketLinux platform. This process is not for the faint of heart. For example, here's the warning preceding the install instructions for the VTech Helio:

Warning! Installing PocketLinux on your Helio will render it useless as a personal information manager, at least for the time being. If you are an average user and not a computer programmer interested in hacking on handheld Linux devices please do not install the PocketLinux platform at this time. We expect PocketLinux to become a useful replacement for the normal VTOS PIM in as little as two months. Please check back often to keep up with the status of PocketLinux.

Of course, Linux SysAdmins won't even bat an eye, or at least squint too hard, at the basic PocketLinux install procedure:

  1. Download and install the packages
  2. Configure your environment
  3. Build an image
  4. Activate the boot loader
  5. Flash the image
  6. Play with the image

Once the installation is complete and the PocketLinux boots, you have an open source-powered PDA that can run virtually no applications. But those will follow soon.

The PocketLinux folks believe that a landslide of applications will soon follow because the project is open to the developer community. Most likely they are correct, and it will just be a matter of time before we start to see all sorts of nifty programs designed specifically for the PocketLinux.

In the meantime, you'll probably be plenty entertained just getting your iPaq or Helio configured and running. Maybe after doing so, you might even write an app or two and share them with other PocketLinux users.

At this point, it seems to make more sense to purchase the much less expensive Helio ($149 to $179 street) and learn the ins and outs of the platform. As applications and refinements emerge, as well as other compatible hardware devices, then you can decide if you want to invest more money in the project.

Bottom line is, the PocketLinux is one of the most intriguing devices in the Linux space right now. And to their credit, they have delivered a product when they said they would, and one that is true to the spirit of the open source community.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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