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News > Technology
Hand me the Linux
April 3, 2001: 4:00 p.m. ET

New handhelds are based on open-source operating system
By Staff Writer Richard Richtmeyer
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CHICAGO (CNNfn) - If you've been in the market for a new handheld computer recently, chances are you've been weighing two options: Palm or PocketPC.

But what about Linux?

That's the question Bradlee LaRonde asked himself about three years ago when he first started toying with the idea of using the alternative operating system as the basis for a handheld computer.

graphic   VIDEO  
graphicBradlee LaRonde, CEO of Agenda Computing, chats with CNNfn about Linux.
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LaRonde is president and chief executive of a startup company called Agenda Computing Inc., which demonstrated its first Linux-based handheld computers, called the VR3 and the VR3R, at the Comdex technology convention and trade show taking place here this week.

"These devices compete against Palm-class devices, but I think the Palm OS and the so-called 'Palm Economy' is something that worked well last year and the year before," LaRonde said in an interview with CNNfn.com.

"But I don't think it's something that's going to work well in the future."

Linux makes headway

A computer's operating system, or OS, is the master control program that sets all the standards for the application programs that run on it. Typically, the more popular OS platforms attract larger numbers of programmers who will develop software that is compatible with them.

On the vast majority of the world's desktop computers, some version of Microsoft's "Windows" operating system is the OS. However, Linux, which is an "open source" OS, meaning it is open to modifications and freely distributed among developers, has been making headway, especially in the market for network servers.

A recent report from technology research firm International Data Corp. showed that Linux which originally had a cult following of technically sophisticated users was installed on 27 percent of the world's network servers, while Microsoft's Windows was on 41 percent. What's more, the report showed Linux is growing at a rate of 24 percent to Microsoft's 20 percent, thanks in part to mainstream computing companies such as IBM and Compaq, which recently have thrown their weight behind it.

Challenging the Palm OS

In handhelds, Palm's OS is the market leader. But it, too, has been facing an increasing competitive threat, this one from the new "PocketPCs" running the latest version of Microsoft's Windows CE platform. Last year, PocketPC accounted for roughly 10.3 percent of the total market share of handheld computers sold, up from about 6.8 percent in 1999, according to a survey conducted by market research firm NPD Intellect.

LaRonde is aiming to chip away even further at Palm's base of users with Agenda Computing's new Linux-based handhelds. Because Linux at its core is a network operating system while Palm is designed to run one task or program at a time, he says Linux will be much easier to develop networking and communications applications for as handhelds are increasingly used as network-access devices.

"The key is not so much what Agenda is going to do in terms of networking capabilities, but what the Linux community and the third-party developers are going to do, he said. "Because what they've got with Agenda is a low-cost, lightweight Linux platform to develop their solutions on."

Palm holds the advantage

Of course, Palm currently has the advantage in the race for developers. The company boasts that more than 10,000 third-party applications have been designed for its OS. And some market observers said Microsoft's PocketPC platform is the more immediate threat to Palm's dominance.

graphic"The 900-pound gorilla right now is Palm, and the one that's making a real run for the market is Microsoft, with its PocketPC push," said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a Silicon Valley consulting firm that focuses on studying emerging PC and consumer electronics technologies.

"Anybody that's coming into the market at this point really has a tough road ahead of them," Bajarin said.

But LaRonde is betting that the same base of users in the open-source community that helped push Linux into the mainstream on the desktop and in servers will do so in the handheld space as well. And it is to this community that the company plans to first market the new devices.

"There's going to be mass market interest in the product, but the initial plan is really to make this a 'Linux-consumer' product," he said. "By that, I mean people who have installed Linux on their home PC, use Linux at work and have some knowledge of Linux."

Agenda introduces first Linux-based device

Agenda Computing isn't the only one with the idea that Linux might work well on a handheld. Several other companies, including Sharp Electronics and Acer, are reportedly working on Linux-based handhelds. Some handheld enthusiasts also have devised a way to install the Linux operating system on Compaq's "iPAQ" PocketPC.

But with the introduction of its new devices later this month, Agenda Computing will be the first to market in the United States with a Linux-based handheld designed for consumers.

The new devices are built around NEC's VR4181 66MHz, 32-bit processor and come with 8 megabytes of RAM and 16 MB of flash memory. They come with the same types of personal information management applications such as a contact manager, appointment book and to-do list pre-installed. They also come standard with infrared circuitry and software that enables them to work as a remote control for household appliances.

They are available in three colors, including 'H20,' which is transparent, a slate blue the company has dubbed 'Shark,' and a flat black it calls 'Matrix.' The manufacturer's suggested retail price for the VR3 is $249. For the VR3R, which features a rechargeable battery, the MSRP is $289.

Agenda Computing is a wholly owned subsidiary of Kessel International Holdings Ltd., a Hong Kong-based electronics manufacturer that makes handheld computers, multilingual translators and handheld electronic games primarily on a contract basis.

Kessel currently handles all of the manufacturing of the new handheld devices at its manufacturing plants in Asia. Agenda Computing's product marketing, distribution, customer support and service are handled through the company's Irvine, Calif., offices.

Ultimately, Agenda Computing's goal is to build up its brand name and then spin off from its corporate parent in an initial public offering, which will likely be a year or more down the road, LaRonde said. graphic





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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.