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Article: Agenda’s agenda — a Linux-based “Open PDA”

Aug 14, 2000 — by Rick Lehrbaum — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 1 views

I just got back from my sneak preview of the new Linux-powered Agenda VR3 PDA which is being introduced tomorrow at LinuxWorld in San Jose, CA (see announcement). The VR3 offers convincing evidence of just how quickly Linux has transformed the embedded systems world, and how far that transformation has progressed.

Wow! It's a real computer, in a really tiny package. I mean, this isn't some stripped down subset — it's got the memory and CPU resources to run real programs, save data reliably (even if the batteries run down) — and its powered by a genuine multi-tasking Linux kernel. Hey, you could even run a (small) website on it!

Want to transfer data into the VR3? Naturally, it's got the expected IrDA port so you can zap stuff back and forth with a friend or associate's Palm Pilot, or to/from your desktop or laptop PC. But unlike other PDAs, you can also hook up to the VR3's RS232 serial port and telnet or ftp right into the little feller!

Sure, it's got the usual PDA-like graphical screen with buttons and such. However, unlike other PDAs, you can also drop down onto a genuine Linux command prompt and, using bash and busybox, really take control of what's going on — and really make some cool stuff happen.

Incidentally, on the command prompt screen, the device provides an onscreen keyboard, so you can use the stylus to “type” whatever Linux commands you please. It's a bit slow entering keyboard characters that way, but it really does work!

What's in the box?

Here's a summary of the VR3's impressive list of specifications:

    • 66MHz 32-bit NEC VR4181 MIPS


    • 8MB RAM
    • 16MB built-in Flash storage (protects data from loss due to dead battery)


    • 160 x 240 pixels monochrome LCD
    • 16-level grey scale (simulates color graphics)
    • 2.25″ x 3.25″ viewable area
    • Backlit for dark viewing
    • Digital contrast control

    User Interface

    • Stylus activated power on/off
    • Touch sensitive for stylus or fingertip operation
    • 7 push buttons for actions
    • 7 touch sensitive quick launch hard icons
    • On-screen keyboard and external keyboard
    • On-screen handwriting recognition input
    • Built-in microphone jack
    • Visual notification LED
    • Audio notification buzzer


    • 1 IrDA port, with slow speed mode for long range IR transfers
    • 1 RS-232 port
    • 1 high speed 1.6Mhz clocked serial port for external keyboard, mass storage, wireless, etc.


    • Linux-based Linux-VR operating system
    • Applications: Contacts, To do, Schedule, Notes, Calculator, QuickSync, Email, Network, Terminal, Games, Bootloader, Utilities
    • CD-ROM Software
    • QuickSync for Linux and Windows PC


    • 2 AAA batteries

    Physical Specifications

    • Size: 4.5″ x 3.0″ x 0.8″
    • Weight: 4 oz (without batteries)


    • Standard: Battery, Stylus, Cradle
    • Optional: 33.3Kb/s external modem, RS-232 serial cable, external keyboard, audio microphone/ speaker set

How does it do all that?

One of the keys to how Agenda managed to get so much into such a small space, is the NEC VR4181 system-on-chip processor (info) that's at the heart of the VR3's internal electronics. NEC created that super-high-integration piece of silicon specifically to power WindowsCE based PDAs, and it contains just about everything you'd want to have in a handheld PC.

Last year, however, Agenda's Hong Kong parent company (Kessel International Holdings) evaluated WindowsCE and concluded that something more open — and easier to develop with — would be much more likely to catapult the company's new handheld PC into mainstream popularity. Accordingly, they decided to use Linux and to make the system an open platform, rather than proprietary, and to embark on a strategy of encouraging an active open source developer community to support the VR3.

By taking advantage of Linux and other open source software, Agenda has been able to leverage the work of pre-existing open source projects and activities. For example, the VR3's operating system is nearly 100% based on activities of The Linux VR Project (info here). Additionally, the device takes advantage of such open source utilities as busybox, FLTK, rsync, and libdb. FLTK, for example, provides a framework that makes it extremely easy for developers to write graphical apps that look good on the VR3, without having to worry about the VR3's unique screen resolution or other characteristics.

Growing a developer community

Given the importance that Agenda places on creating an active and well supported developer community, it comes as no surprise that the company has dedicated a section of its website to providing information, documentation, tools, and source code for developers. The introductory message at gives a flavor of how the company feels about its open source strategy and the importance of its developer community:

    “It's about choice. And freedom. Freedom to create your own agenda, using the skills you've already honed, and tools you are already familiar with. Agenda isn't a “new OS”. It is Linux. The real McCoy. And it is X. And bash. And whatever else you port. Leverage open-source operating system and tools. Source-available system utilities and productivity suite software. Program in C or C++. Use familiar tools and libraries like gcc and glibc. Don't settle for less – the VR3 runs Linux 2.4 and XFree86. Build user interfaces easily using the built-in FLTK library. Access databases efficiently using built-in libdb support. This site is dedicated to helping you, the developer, make the most of your handheld computer. After all, it's your Agenda.”

Agenda's Vice President of R&D, Brad LaRonde, adds: “We want to make everything we possibly can be open source. Eventually, it will all be open source.” Those words are from someone who knows what he's talking about: LaRonde has been one of the most prominent open source developers of the Linux port to MIPS and VR series processors for PDA-like devices.

When can I get one?

Where do you get one, and how much does it cost? The product is slated to be introduced in Q1 '01, at retail prices from $149 to $299, depending on how much Flash storage is inside. There will also be an “executive model” (the VR5) that will have a metal case and rechargeable batteries. The company is currently accepting advanced orders at its website,

I don't know about you, but I can't wait to get mine!


The VR3 is now available from Softfield Technologies, and there is now an option of 16MB built-in SDRAM memory. Pricing of the 8M version is US$105 and the 16M version is US$135.

This article was originally published on and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

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