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Report: Linux takes leading role in IoT-obsessed market

Mar 24, 2015 — by Eric Brown 3,389 views

Spurred on by IoT, open source Linux will grow from a 56.2 percent share of embedded device shipments in 2012 to 64.7 percent in 2017, says VDC Research.

Earlier this month, VDC Research released a report on the embedded OS market that says embedded Linux is growing in adoption in a market increasingly obsessed with the Internet of Things. The popularity of open source as well as the need for more advanced wireless and security stacks have helped Linux gain share from Microsoft’s Windows Embedded and from real-time operating systems (RTOSes), according to VDC’s “The Global Market for IoT and Embedded Operating Systems.”

VDC Research projects that while commercial Linux distributions are expected to collectively drop from 7.6 percent of embedded device shipments in 2012 to 5.5 percent in 2017, the growth in shipments using free Linux distributions will more than make up for it. “Open source, freely, and/or publicly available” Linux will grow from 56.2 percent to 64.7 percent in the same period, ending at almost double the share of Windows and RTOS based systems combined, says VDC. Combining the figures results in a total Linux share of 70.2 percent, and that doesn’t include the Linux-based Android (see farther below).

Global shipments of embedded and real-time devices by OS
(click image to enlarge; source: VDC Research)

The overall embedded device market continues to grow, so revenues for commercial Linux distributions remain high, says VDC. It should also be noted that many commercial Linux distributions, including Wind River Linux, Mentor Embedded Linux, Timesys LinuxLink, and the telecom-oriented Enea Linux are based on an open source Yocto Linux foundation. LinuxLink and Enea are also offered in free, open source versions, as well as commercial versions. Other, typically vertical market distributions, are more proprietary.

Numerical breakdown of shipments data shown graphically farther above
(click image to enlarge; source: VDC Research)

According to VDC, commercial Linux is holding its own thanks to the growing need for middleware in IoT gateways, and to a lesser extent, IoT endpoint nodes. VDC noted that Intel-owned Wind River in particular has invested heavily in IoT middleware, including security, virtualization, and communications frameworks.


Yet, open source groups like the Linux Foundation’s AllSeen Alliance based on Qualcomm’s AllJoyn framework, are also developing IoT enabling code. In addition, the popularity of open SBC platforms like the Raspberry Pi and Arduino in the development of embedded IoT devices has encouraged Linux in general. Meanwhile, the heterogeneous nature of IoT segments like home automation equipment, where the goal is to talk to as many types of mart devices as possible, tends to align with a more open development environment.

Android takes on Windows Embedded

The Linux-based Android was not included in the VDC Research projections. VDC recently estimated, however, that in last three years, Android shipments that did not include smartphones, tablets, and E-readers grew at a CAGR of 149.2 percent, culminating in about 15 million units shipped in 2014. The surge of embedded Android has been underway for several years, as was noted in this EE Times 2013 Embedded Market Study.

Android is competing less with Linux or RTOSes, however, than with Windows Embedded, largely due to its highly developed, touch-enabled GUI and consumer orientation. Google’s mostly open source OS is thriving in areas where Windows has traditionally performed somewhat better than Linux, including automotive infotainment, medical devices, military handhelds, retail, and signage.

Also missing from the projections are the no-OS and custom/informal OS projects, which together represent more than a third of total embedded projects, says VDC. This segment will continue to decline due to the growing demands on low-end microcontroller-based endpoints for wireless support and in some cases security codes. These formally barebones projects have been increasingly supplanted by projects developed with open source RTOSes, in particular FreeRTOS. These platforms are better suited for controlling Cortex-M and Cortex-R MCUs than is Linux.

VDC Research notes, however, that the open RTOS boom of recent years has begun to subside as more advanced IoT systems such as gateways represent a larger portion of embedded projects. Connected products and systems need more advanced processors that require Linux, Windows, or in some cases, full-featured, commercial RTOSes. Some of the latter have lowered their prices due to pressure from the free competition.

Finally, under the new leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft is taking a renewed interest in embedded beyond mobile consumer devices. A free, maker-oriented version of Windows 10 designed to replace Windows Embedded will run on the Raspberry Pi 2, Intel’s MinnowBoard Max, and Qualcomm’s new DragonBoard 410c hacker SBCs. Microsoft is augmenting this Windows for Devices, or Windows 10 IoT, with hooks to IoT middleware built around its Azure cloud platform.

Linux’s growing domination of the embedded market

Not so long ago, Windows Embedded and the now faded Windows Mobile clearly dominated embedded Linux. To see how far Linux has come, here are some stories from the LinuxDevices Archives on studies from VDC Research dating back to 2001:

Here are three VDC Research guest columns published in LinuxGizmos:

Further information

More information on “The Global Market for IoT and Embedded Operating Systems” may be found at VDC Research.

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