Linux is increasingly the OS of choice for mobile devices, hacker boards, IoT, home automation, consumer gadgets, drones, robots, wearables, cars, and more.
The roughly 15-year-old experiment called Embedded Linux has by several accounts surpassed real-time OSes and Windows Embedded in recent years. If you include phones, tablets, and consumer electronics using the Linux-based Android, that lead turns to dominance.
This year, Linux has continued to control the fledgling home automation market, and it’s increasingly shaping up as the go-to operating system for the control of robots and drones. In consumer electronics, Linux and Android lead in categories such as media streamers and smart TVs. As manufacturers upgrade industrial equipment for wireless Internet of Things capability, Linux has become the natural choice wherever an OS is needed.
This article looks at embedded Linux trends over the past year in the following six broad segments, listed roughly in order of market maturity:
- Embedded boards
- IoT and home automation
- Gaming and multimedia consumer electronics
- Drones and robots
- Emerging technologies like wearables and automotive
In 2015, Android continued to dominate the mobile market. Despite strong competition from Apple’s iPhone 6, Android’s share of the global smartphone market grew 1.4 percent in the third quarter to 84.7 percent, according to Gartner. Yet, the “other” category, principally comprised of a variety of mobile Linux platforms, declined from the previous year from 0.4 to 0.3 percent.
Despite the fact Tizen and Ubuntu Touch finally launched in new phones this year, 2015 was far from being a breakout year for non-Android mobile Linux. It was more like breaking bad.
The most established platform — Firefox OS — was all but shuttered earlier this month. Mozilla will use some of the technology in an upcoming IoT platform, but it won’t be renewing its many carrier contracts in emerging nations around the world.
Firefox OS may yet have life, however. Hong Kong-based Acadine Technologies which was launched by ex-Mozilla execs earlier this year, hopes to pick up those carrier contracts with its own Firefox OS based H5OS distribution.
Another Mozilla spinoff called Silk Labs led by Andreas Gal, the principal creator of Firefox OS, probably won’t use any Firefox OS code in its IoT focused platform. Gal told CNET that the main problem with Firefox OS was that it was late to a market dominated by Android and iOS.
If Firefox OS was late with its 2013 launch, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch may have missed the boat entirely with their tardy 2015 debuts. Both offer benefits that should give them a chance, however. Tizen has a solid Linux Foundation hosted mobile distribution, as well as the market power of Samsung and the potential for integration with Samsung smart devices. Canonical’s Ubuntu has a compelling convergence vision and an established base of Ubuntu desktop users to tap into it. Yet, after releasing its first Tizen-based Samsung Z1 phone this summer in India to modest success, the rumored Samsung Z3 has yet to be seen. Several third-party Ubuntu Touch phones have arrived, and since August have been available globally, but the convergence of desktop and mobile OSes continues to be delayed.
Finally, Jolla, which offers the interesting, Meego-based Sailfish OS on its Jolla phone, came close to bankruptcy this year. Last week, the Finnish company announced it was back from the dead with a Series C funding round.
One of the problems with Firefox OS, and to a lesser extent the other platforms, is that people like their apps. To succeed, a mobile Linux project will not only need solid Android compatibility, but also a reason for being that goes beyond not being Google. Time is running out, however, as most mobile Linux developers seem to have defected to IoT. In fact, the mobile platforms have already started morphing into IoT platforms, and there seems to be more interest in Snappy Ubuntu Core, for example, than Ubuntu Touch.
The thriving genre of open source hacker boards continues to drive and influence the larger commercial embedded market space and vice versa. Not only are manufacturers opting to use the Raspberry Pi for small-run devices, embedded board vendors are increasingly hosting community-backed SBC projects, or launching open-spec boards of their own.
To the dismay of traditional manufacturers, the Pi and its imitators are also forcing immense pricing pressures. Even if new cut-rate hacker SBCs like the $5 Raspberry Pi Zero, or $9 Chip are more typically bought with add-ons that bring the price closer to that of a $35 Raspberry Pi 2, that’s still hundreds less than the price of typical embedded SBCs.
Raspberry Pi Zero
One trend on the rise in both commercial and community camps is the fragmentation of the single board computer into multiple board computers that combine a computer-on-module containing a processor, memory, and increasingly, built-in WiFi and Bluetooth, with a carrier board that provides real-world ports, a power supply, and other extras. In this way, you can upgrade to a faster processor module while maintaining a familiar hardware development platform.
The modularity extends to an increasing number of add-ons. In addition to the many boards that offer Raspberry Pi and/or Arduino shield expansion, we’ve seen a variety of IoT-focused interfaces either for homegrown add-ons or third-party sensor families like Seeed’s Grove modules. This modular approach goes hand-in-hand with a trend toward lower-power IoT boards. The emblematic SBC of the year may be Seeed’s BeagleBone Green remake of the BeagleBone Black, which subtracts the HDMI port and adds Grove expansion.
The “Internet of Things” (IoT) is clearly where the growth is in the embedded industry, although defining it is still a challenge. The gist is that you’re aggregating sensor inputs from low-power, typically wireless enabled endpoints via hubs or gateways. In any case, the main two product categories — home automation hubs and industrial IoT gateways — are clearly dominated by embedded Linux.
This year we saw fewer home automation startups and more consolidation and expansion of smart device ecosystems. Alphabet’s Nest has jumped out to take the lead, and it’s now expanding its ecosystem with a Thread-based Weave IoT protocol.
In part, Nest’s success is due to Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) investment and marketing muscle, but it’s also because Nest’s main device is a smart thermostat that can actually save users money. Other home automation applications include cheaper surveillance and security, but much of it is about enabling minor conveniences, or the geeky fun of hacking together a smart home that you can monitor from your smartphone. It remains to be seen how much appeal that will have for the average consumer.
Nest has plenty of competition however, from competitors like Samsung’s SmartThings, and the market is still young. The same can be said of the broader realm of industrial IoT. These more complex systems, are being implemented via gateway computers, but most also provide cloud analytics and reference platforms for endpoints.
So far, the most successful platform for both industrial and consumer IoT is not a company or a product, but a broad standard developed by Qualcomm called AllJoyn. Overseen by the Linux Foundation’s Allseen Alliance, the platform offers vendors a solid foundation for their own IoT platforms, giving them a readymade ecosystem of compatible products. Also of note, Amazon launched an AWS IoT managed cloud platform that depends in part on Linux open-spec SBCs for gateway reference designs.
Another emerging industrial area is 3D printing. Most consumer 3D printers are simple desktop peripherals without much need for embedded Linux, although many are open source. Last year, we saw the first Linux-based 3D printer from MakerBot with its latest, prosumer level Replicators. This year, aside from the tiny iBox Nano resin printer, we have only seen two commercial printers running Linux, and they are both higher end industrial models. Autodesk’s BeagleBone Black based Ember 3D resin printer is now shipping, and the Kickstarter-backed, Pi-based AON will ship in April.
IoT and 3D printing spending is still dwarfed by a larger market in traditional industrial and enterprise embedded devices. Linux continues strong in high-revenue enterprise categories like industrial computers, wireless base-stations, as well as defense and transportation systems.
In 2015, Linux and Android continued to cruise along in a wide range of AV-oriented consumer electronics gear including media players, set-tops, and audio systems. They’re also coming on strong in signage and videoconferencing systems and mini-PCs. Some of these included non-laptop implementations of Google’s Chrome OS.
Linux has for years been lurking inside most smart TVs, and the latest models run more advanced distributions like WebOS (LG) and Tizen (Samsung). Linux also continues strong in media streamers, with Roku boxes leading the way, although Android is the typical choice in newer platforms.
After failing with the Android-based Google TV, Google is testing the market once again with an Android TV platform. Most devices won’t ship until 2016, but the highest profile entry — the latest Nvidia Shield — has earned poor marks for its TV experience.
Gaming is proving to be a tough market to crack for both Android and Linux. A number of Steam Machines running Valve’s open source Linux-based OS showed up this fall, but they were late and bore high prices. The critical reception has been fairly brutal, with the lack of compelling new games being the main complaint.
On the Android side, Ouya collapsed and was picked up by Razer, whose intriguing Forge TV has struggled to gain traction. A new Ouya-based Cortex game store, as well as Razer’s promise of a January shipment for its delayed Turret lapboard/mouse combo may revive the product.
Blurring the lines with gaming on one side and industrial applications on the other are a number of new computer vision, virtual reality, and augmented reality head-mount platforms that were unveiled in 2015. Although many of the products won’t ship until 2016, and most are PC peripherals rather than embedded devices, several include Linux- or Android development platforms, such as Razer’s OSVR or Valve’s related OpenVR.
New head-mounted displays aimed at sports included Recon’s Android-based Jet eyewear. Most of the non-sports smart eyewear devices are aimed at industrial field workers. Google is said to be working on a new version of Google Glass that is aiming for an enterprise audience rather than risking more humiliation on the consumer front.
2015 was the year that Linux joined the drone conversation. In addition to high-profile launches like 3DR’s Dronecode compatible Solo and Parrot’s BeBop 2, new Linux-based Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have included Ubuntu- and Snappy Ubuntu versions of Erle Robotics’ open source Erle-Copter. Other tuxified, drone-related products include a Flyt autopilot from Navstik Labs.
Market leader DJI announced a Manifold development computer and open SDK for its high-end Matrice 100 drone that runs Ubuntu, and in 2016, Yuneec will release a drone built around Qualcomm’s Ubuntu-based Snapdragon Flight reference platform. Other Linux drones due in 2016 include the indoor-friendly Fleye drone from Belgium, and a Snappy-based drone from French firm UAVIA touted for its ability to be remotely controlled over the web.
This year was another active one for Linux-based terrestrial robots. On the high end, a humanoid, Xenomai-based DRC-Hubo robot from Korea’s Team KAIST won the $2 million DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals. High-end Linux robots demonstrated by robotics research centers included Oregon State’s speedy, bipedal ATRIAS.
In the industrial market, Rethink Robotics launched a one-armed, AI-imbued Sawyer manipulation robot for light manufacturing that runs Linux and ROS. Sawyer is claimed to be smaller, faster, stronger, and more precise than its earlier Baxter. Unbounded Robotics spinoff Fetch Robotics began shipping a Fetch picking robot and Freight hauling bot for the warehouse fulfillment market.
There have also been a number of consumer bots running Linux, such as CoroWare’s 4WD CoroBot Spark open robot platform for STEM education. Like the Dexter Industries GoPiGo, the Spark is based on a Raspberry Pi.
Samsung Gear S2
In newer categories like wearables and automotive. Linux and Android are faced with considerable competition. There have been only a few non-Android wearables that run Linux, with Samsung’s Tizen-based Gear watches being the main exceptions. Most of the action aside from the popular iWatch and Pebble, has been with Android Wear.
Thanks in large part to the popularity of the iWatch, Android Wear and other more autonomous watches running custom Android builds dropped to 17.4 percent of the smart wearables market in 2015, according to IDC. Yet, by 2019 Android is projected to advance to 38.4 percent share, following Apple WatchOS watches at 47.4 percent.
If smartwatches are all about getting the most out of the least computing resources, automotive computers such as in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems have higher power and price points to play with. Here, Linux leads Android, but both are far behind market leader QNX and even Windows Embedded Automotive in terms of shipping systems.
It may be hard to see in an automotive market marked by long development cycles, but Linux is coming on fast with IVI devices based on GENIVI or the Linux Foundation’s Automotive Grade Linux. This year, the AGL project released its first IVI specification, using Tizen for the reference platform, and a Jaguar/Land Rover implementation may not be far behind.
On the Android side, Google’s Android Auto standard, which streamlines interactions between existing IVI systems and Android devices, is likely to be followed in the coming years by a complete Android-based IVI and telematics platform. Meanwhile, Google umbrella company Alphabet plans to spin off Google’s self-driving car project, which has traditionally used Ubuntu, as a separate company. Yahoo! Autos recently reported that Google and Ford have entered into a joint venture to develop an automated ride sharing business using autonomous cars.
Linux has also been used by several other car companies testing autonomous or semi-autonomous technology. It’s too early to say how this market will sort out, not only in terms of the OS, but even the level of autonomy the market will desire. Meanwhile, is it too early to start talking about tuxified flying cars?
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