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Linux PDAs: There's Rustling in the Bushes
Pages: 1, 2

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:

  • Linux 2.4.x -- the Linux kernel re-engineered for small devices such as PDAs, cell phones, and TVs.
  • Kaffe -- an open source Java implementation developed with embedded devices in mind, enabling PocketLinux to provide a uniform programming engine on any device regardless of hardware.
  • XML -- used to represent all data in PocketLinux whether it is the configuration database, the incoming e-mail and news feeds, or the way applications look on the screen, thereby enabling maximal interoperation between devices.
  • The Web -- the data on the device is also the data on the Internet. Transvirtual's web server and data proxy can deliver the same interface to the news, e-mail, or other content on the desktop as easily as it can be delivered to mobile devices.

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:

  • VTech Helio ($179) with a 75 MHz, 32-bit RISC processor, 8 MB of memory, and a 16-level gray scale display. Or ...
  • Compaq iPaq ($499) with a 206 MHz Intel StrongARM processor, 32 MB of memory, and a 12-bit color TFT display.

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

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