June 3, 2010 1:04 pm

IBM joins chipmakers to boost Linux platform

IBM has joined forces with chip companies Arm, Freescale, Samsung, ST-Ericsson and Texas Instruments, to create a company that will accelerate the development of Linux software for devices such as mobile phones, tablet computers and digital televisions.

The move is a challenge to Intel and Microsoft, which are looking to move beyond their dominance of the personal computing market to take a large share of the mobile phone and hybrid device market.

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Arm-based chips are used in more than 95 per cent of the world’s mobile phones and also power Apple’s iPad tablet. However, Intel is developing smaller, more power efficient, Atom chips which could also be used for these kinds of devices.

Intel’s big advantage is that Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which is familiar to most computer users, does not work well on Arm-based devices. Consumers have so far preferred netbooks running on an Intel and Windows-based system.

Arm has been pushing Microsoft to adapt Windows to run over its chip architecture, but without success. Now it appears that it and the other chipmakers, who all use the Arm architecture, are fighting back by strengthening Linux, the open source operating system that is a rival to Microsoft’s Windows.

Linaro, the new company formed by the alliance, aims to simplify the development process for Linux. One of the problems of Linux is that there are multiple versions of the system, which can be confusing for hardware manufacturers. Operating systems such as Google’s Android and Chrome, MeeGo and Palm’s WebOS are all different variants based on the Linux system.

There are also multiple variations of the Arm architecture, with each chipmaker putting their own individual tweaks on the chips. The complexity of this ecosystem is a turn-off particularly for computer and laptop manufacturers, who are used to working with the much simpler Intel and Windows combination.

“We had a lot of feedback from manufacturers that they really wanted to use Arm chips but the complexity was a challenge. Most of them are coming from an Intel environment where you don’t have all those variants,” said Ben Cade, co-chief executive of Linaro. “We got a lot of feedback to say: ‘Help us speed up the adoption process’.”

Linaro’s goal is to ensure that the latest software can be quickly ready to put on the latest silicon chips, shortening the time it takes to make new smart phones, tablets, digital televisions and other devices.

“The existence of Linaro will significantly simplify the process of making Linux-based consumer devices available to market,” said Jane Silber, chief executive of Canonical.

Linaro will be a non-profit company, and will be backed by investment in the “tens of millions” from members of the alliance.

The first software and tools from Linaro are due to be released in November. Additional companies are expected to join the alliance.

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