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The Agenda VR3: Real Linux in a PDA
Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4

Conclusion

The Agenda VR3 is an interesting product, from several perspectives. For a Linux geek, it is a relatively inexpensive way of getting a real Linux environment running in a PDA form factor. While executing shell commands in a tiny console using HWR or a virtual keyboard has limited practical uses, I personally find it more enjoyable than Solitaire during boring meetings ...



For Agenda Computing using Linux means they've been able to deliver a full PDA product without paying anyone a software license fee. Based on their projections of unit sales of 500,000 and 750,000 units for this and next year, the savings in licensing expenses could be in the millions of dollars. This is money which would have had to come from the end-consumer in the form of higher prices, making their product less competitive. This money would have also flowed right out the door to someone else.

In light of this, it's pretty easy for Agenda to justify employing a few hackers of their own to bring all the pieces together, and fill in any missing components. In a testament to Agenda's commitment to the open source community, the Personal Information Management (PIM) application suite developed by them has been released under the GPL. This has actually been ported to the Familiar environment for the iPAQ.

Now, being real life, in addition to the positives, there are also a few negatives with the VR3.

Probably my biggest concern is with the amount of regular RAM memory available -- 8 Megs is awfully minimalist, particularly when you're running a full Linux and X Windows environment. And when the VR3 runs out of memory, applications can slow to a crawl, or the entire environment can fall out from under you.

In order to make the best of what's available, the Agenda team have recently implemented XIP in the kernel. This is eXecute in Place, and means the application libraries are executed directly from their flash memory locations, rather than being copied to regular RAM. This has improved things significantly, such that it's now possible to have all the applications running at the same time. (You just know regular users are going to do that!)

I have been told by Agenda that a later model, the VR3R, will have more on-board RAM. Considering how inexpensive RAM is now, I really think 32 megs should have been the first design target, particularly how constrained some applications might be in low memory environments. (Another arm-chair engineer!)

Another issue has to do with the interfacing and expandability or rather the lack of it. Until the proprietary interface on the sync port is documented, the only way to interface to the unit is via IrDA or RS232 serial. This is certainly good enough for most PDA uses, but some people are wanting more, like PCMCIA, 802.11, or even Bluetooth.

Again, I think this was conscience design decision on the part of Agenda Computing, which is targeting the VR3 as a PDA, and not as some power user's mobile hacking platform. With a unit as small as the VR3, offering advanced expansion options is difficult and somewhat expensive.

Also, some functionality is simply missing. One critical example is that the unit cannot currently wake itself up if it's suspended. This is a problem if the Schedule program can't inform you have a meeting in 10 minutes. Agenda Computing reports this wake-up ability will not be ready until June 15th.

On the usability, reliability and stability fronts, the VR3 looks like a good contender. With the addition of the XIP kernel, the VR3 has become much more trust worthy as a PDA, staying responsive without requiring a reboot for several days of regular (on-off-on-off) PIM usage. However, it's still not at the 99.9% of Palm (but then, neither is Windows CE).

And, one last down-side: the desktop Sync software for Windows isn't finished yet and won't be until the first week in June. This means anyone buying the VR3 as a PDA to use under Windows before those dates will be missing a major component to the whole equation.

One could argue Agenda Computing might be releasing the VR3 too early. And, frankly, I couldn't recommend the VR3 to Jane Consumer PDA user who just wants some stable PIM apps and the ability to IrDA data between co-workers -- not just yet. Maybe in another month or two, after everything settles out and other people have had a chance to find the bugs. But now, today (2001.05.17), I'd recommend a Palm m105.

To a geek or developer, on the other hand, I think the VR3 is a platform worth having a serious look at. The price-point is such that it can be simple to justify its deployment at specialized and targeted applications. Porting of apps, so long as they fit within the constraints of such a small display size, cannot get much easier. It's Linux and X!

At first, Agenda plans to sell the VR3s (the three consumer models and the developer model) via their website at www.agendacomputing.com. The developer model will be available while supplies last. The consumer models will also be available at www.thinkgeek.com, and will be available via retail outlines over the coming months.

This roll-out plan is optimal for the transition to a deployed, consumer product. The more technical users will be the largest group to buy the units online, which will help find and fix any outstanding bugs in the system. It should also result in a marketed increase in the number of VR3 users who are porting and developing applications, increasing the selection for the next wave: retail users.

Being the first in a market is rarely a guarantee that the market is simply there for the taking. Agenda will no doubt face competition from others who think they can do it better or cheaper, or both. So long as it runs Linux and X, and we can port our apps between them, what do we care?

If the manufacturers want to compete to offer us better, cheaper products, great! As developers and consumers, we simply take advantage of it. Since it's an open platform, we know we can develop for it and become dependent on the platform without being told, "Oh, sorry. You need to buy this now."

Only time will tell which platform(s) will take off, and which won't, and who will be manufacturing them. Agenda Computing and the VR3 are certainly going to be one of the early players -- it will be interesting to see how they and the market adapt to each other.

Online Resources

One of the most important indicators for future success of a platform is the activity of independent developers and users. The Palm platform would have been a dead story years ago if there weren't so many developers producing so much software for the devices.

Thus, it is a great sign to see how much material is already available on the Internet for VR3 users and developers. A strong independent developer community already exists for the VR3 platform, and is growing. The list below is by no means complete, but is a good selection of what is available.

Agenda Developer Zone Official development site, hosted by Agenda Computing. Hosts CVS and FTP servers with kernel and apps.

Agenda Software Repository (ASR)
Database of software for the Agenda devices. As of 2001.05.15, there were just under 100 applications listed, with several new entries added each week.

Help Page: My Agenda
An independent site run by Andrej Cadilnik. It has extensive documentation on the devices, including how to protect PMON from being overwritten.

AGENDAwiki.COM
Based on the UseModWiki system, is a user created/edited/updated site containing useful information for Agenda users and developers.

Linux VR
Repository for kernel and tools targeted at VR MIPS processors.

Agenda Community Portal
Slashdot-like news site for Agenda-related info. Not terribly busy, but worth visiting once a week.

Today's Agenda
Another news site. Old articles worth skimming over for interesting links and software.

Apologies to anyone whose site was left out -- there were many to choose from.

Chris Halsall is the Managing Director of Ideas 4 Lease (Barbados). Chris is a specialist... at automating information gathering and presentation systems.


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