another Tux bites the dust

At the dayjob, we've been evaluating various OS options for a customer project. Without going into details, it involves installing embedded software on a ThinCan for a special usage case. The basic needs are simple: graphic environment to run a custom application (OS neutral), plus a few drivers for hardware attached to the ThinCan. That's it. Nothing to excited about.

Comparing various team members' proposals to implement the OS base was the real shocker: no matter how optimized the software base and compiler options, no matter which build environment was used (Thin Station, Open Embedded, Gentoo, etc.), we couldn't get a performance that was remotely usable:

  • Boot time goes well over a minute, which is way too slow.
  • The graphic environment is sluggish, to say the least. True enough, distributions like Thin Station come with rather outdated versions of everything, but still... that slow?!
  • Refactoring IceWM to provide clean 95-ish functionalities using current XDG standards would require a fair amount of work. By the time we'd be done, IceWM would probably gain a thick footprint like XFCE progressively did.

Then came the proposal from our team's lone Windows guy: XP Embedded. Booted in less than 10 seconds, has a graphical environment that is usable out of the box and integrating the customer's application was a breeze. Heck, the demo is practically a finished product already and took just a couple of hours to assemble! To make matters worse, the total we'd be paying in licensing fees, for all the Windows components we choose, would amount to far less than what it would cost to polish either of the Free Software -based proposals.

Before anyone goes and puts on their asbestos suit, I'm already aware that the point of Free Software is to keep people employed and to make the community at large benefit from everyone's code improvements by contributing patches to upstream. Please keep in mind that, in contrast, business requirements are to get results at a reasonable cost, reasonably fast and to produce a well-polished product. The Free Software community has finally conquered the challenges of the desktop and was already on the server ages ago, but we ain't quite there yet on embedded devices, I'm afraid.

While I personally refuse to run anything else than Ubuntu on my laptop, let's face it, in the above case, the savings in time=money were obvious and the resulting product quality, even at demo stage, spoke for itself. Thus, another Tux bit the dust.