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Cooltown tour shows HP's commitment to Linux

Open source visionary hopes to lead HP to the land of open source software.

(LinuxWorld) -- Hewlett-Packard is one of the oldest and proudest names in the history of the computing industry. HP makes everything from supercomputers to laptops, from inkjet printers to pocket PCs, from operating systems to mass storage devices. Until the past year, HP was seen by many -- myself included -- as just another large company offering lip service to the ideals of open source/free software, but not really embracing them. All that began to change in December of 2000 when HP hired Bruce Perens, the man who first articulated the definition of "open source," as HP's point man for negotiating the strange terrain of the brave new world.

I visited with Bruce Perens and two of his fellow workers from HP, Mike Balma and Mirjana Spasojevic, just before the O'Reilly Open Source conference in San Diego. Ostensibly we were gathered to discuss an announcement to be made at the conference regarding the Cooltown project. Balma is Director of Marketing, Linux Systems Operation, and Spasojevic is the Cooltown project leader at HP Labs. But the conversation grew to include lots of other things happening at HP involving Linux and open source.

What is Cooltown? Imagine visiting a car dealer with hundreds of cars on the lot. Inside the showroom you are handed a small device called a "taggy." It's smaller than a PDA or a cell phone, so it's no problem to carry with you as you stroll the lot. Each time you find a vehicle you like and want more information on, you click the taggy. A beacon on the vehicle emits an identification number captured by the taggy. When you've finished, you take the taggy back into the showroom, send the data you've collected with the taggy to an IRDA/Internet enabled intelligent device, and wait for the specific brochures, pricing, and warranty information to be printed for each car you selected. That's one example of how Cooltown technology can be used.

The hardware portion of Cooltown consists of the taggy, the beacon, and a Linux powered computing device called a baseboard. The baseboard is built elsewhere and is proprietary, but the design and reference documents for the taggy and beacon are GPL'd, so anyone wanting to build the devices is able to do so. They can also improve, extend, and modify the designs, so long, of course, as they follow the GPL when they do so. Now that is really cool. Naturally, the software portion of Cooltown is GPL'ed as well. Spasojevic said the code is hosted on a site set up for HP by SourceForge.

As we discussed the project, I was surprised to learn Perens had not ferreted it out of HP Labs, but rather HP contacted him about the best way to proceed in making it open source. That tells me HP is "getting it," not just giving lip support to the notion.

Palma had more to say about Perens' role at HP. "We need somebody like Bruce to be a focal point to help us do things right," he said. He noted sometimes Perens accelerates the process, but other times -- and equally as important -- he slows it down. The point being to get it right, not just to get it done.

What sorts of things? How about Linux drivers for many of the most popular inkjet and lasers. That was one of the first things Perens got accomplished this year. The drivers were announced at the LWCE in New York at the end of January. By the way, here is a tip Perens passed on to me about some of HP's inkjet printers: "on the (Deskjet) 990, and probably some of its cousins, color compensation ended up in the embedded software on the printer, rather than on the driver." What this means for users is regardless of the driver/operating system being used, they will get the highest possible print quality. The top of the line 990 prints as well in Linux as it does in Windows.

Perens also pointed out this is a reversal of an earlier trend towards "Win Printers" and "Win Modems," devices that put more intelligence into the driver and less in the hardware. Not only does that design place an added burden on the PC, slowing it down while the device is used, many criticized the approach because it made hardware exclusive to Windows.

But that's not all. The release of print drivers for Linux was just the beginning. Since then, HP has continued its work on Linux for the IA64 -- it began this effort in 1998 -- so when Intel releases the 64-bit Itanium it co-developed with HP, Linux will be ready.

After failing to convince a commercial distribution to port Linux to its PA-RISC machines, HP partnered with the Debian project to deliver a version of Linux for the PA-RISC architecture. Debian, by the way, is the distribution used internally at HP for development on Linux. As Perens tells this story, he notes, "One of the wonderful things about this is it illustrates the power of circumvention that you get with open source. Nobody stands in your way."

HP has also recently joined LSB, the Linux Standards Base, which recently delivered the long awaited version 1.0 of its specification document. Actually, more than joined, HP is an LSB sponsor, and has dedicated engineering resources to it.

I remarked during the conversation it was a sometimes perilous walk for a large corporation, dedicated to making a profit, to join a community as outspoken and with such diverse views as that of the open source/free software community. Especially when some in that group feel making money is an evil occupation.

Perens replied, "The people who are serious in the open source world, don't really think that making money is an evil process. Not even Richard Stallman. Where you get that from, is your cliche 12-year old on Slashdot who doesn't understand it." He added, "We don't really have a problem with open source and Linux because we understand the economic benefits all the way up to top management of HP."

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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