Linaro scratches the chipmakers' software itch

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You’d think people would be bored with forming embedded Linux consortia by now. But the creation of Linaro demonstrates that there was least one unfilled niche.

Set up by ARM and a bunch of chipmakers, Linaro is different to some of the others that have appeared over the past few years, which are mainly intended to provide ready-made environments for mobile phones and internet tablets.

All of these groups run the risk of being home to nothing more than tumbleweed. A bundle of source code gets dumped in shortly after creation but interest wanes as developers concentrate on the major platforms - right now that’s likely to be Android.

At first sight, Linaro does not look too interesting to developers working with Android and its analogues. But that probably won’t affect Linaro’s success because this group scratches an itch that the chipmakers themselves have, which is the massive cost of developing low-level software for their applications processors. Since the late 1990s, as I describe in this feature for Engineering & Technology, the chipmakers have been bundling more and more software with their devices. But they haven’t picked up any more cash for their efforts.

Instead of doing all the work individually, and spend loads of money, they can club together. Most of them are ARM-based and they have broadly similar system architectures, although things such as the graphics accelerators will differ substantially. Amortising the cost of the support software for environments such as Android and WebOS is not going to solve the chipmakers’ software problems overnight - there are other platforms they need to support - but more cooperation at this level can put a dent in the heavy cost of development.

ARM has already kicked off a similar endeavour for its Cortex-M microcontrollers, although it operates differently to the open-source consortia. The Cortex Microcontroller Software Interface Standard (CMSIS) is designed to support a library of functions that users can bolt into their embedded controllers and has the backing of Cortex-M licensees such as NXP Semiconductor and STMicroelectronics. You can view Linaro as an extension of that kind of effort but with a different target: the Cortex-A series and mobile terminals.

It will be interesting to see if other independent developers turn up and contribute but that may not matter as these are companies with a ton of developers now who have customers who want to base their systems around at least one of the higher-level Linux platforms.

2 Comments

Hello Chris,
I only just found this article through a Linkedin recommendation... Being a keen IET (E&T) Magazine reader, I knew I saw your name somewhere!

A great side I see in Linaro is that the experts will be onboard for the low level code. I feel that a lot of the development is tricky because of the Intellectual Property protection. It is understandable that companies wish to keep their know-how and Linaro would offer them the possibility to contribute and give optimized code without giving "everything" away.
Well, this is at least what I understood from the presentations and the org chart in http://www.linaro.org/how-linaro-works/ :)

Kind regards,
Alban


Thanks Alban,

I suspect you're right. I haven't dug into the details of how much binary vs source the chipmakers expect to deliver but as many of the drivers needed for their silicon involve a lot of software control, a big bone of contention with open source has been how much of their IP the chipmakers have to give up to an open-source licence.