Linux emerges as mobile phone dark horse

Linux emerges as mobile phone dark horse

Thanks to its stature in the enterprise server arena, Linux has emerged as the operating system (OS) dark horse in the race to gain market share on mobile phones. A small set of vendors is backing open source to challenge mobile phone OS rivals Microsoft, Palmsource and Symbian.

The opening salvo came in July when some of the largest volume handset manufacturers agreed to create the Consumer Electronics (CE) Linux Forum in an attempt to extend Linux to meet the needs of CE devices, including mobile phones. Founding members include Matsushita Electric, Sony, Hitachi, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp and Toshiba.

Now MontaVista Software, a Linux embedded-kernel provider, has joined the Linux mobile phone club, inking an agreement in late September with middleware software company Openwave Systems to port Openwave Phone Suite V7 to Linux.

Openwave’s software runs on about half of all currently shipping data-capable mobile phones, director of product management at Openwave’s client software group, Brian Dally.

V7 will act as a rendering and graphics layer that applies Open Mobile Alliance standards for small devices to MontaVista Linux Consumer Electronics Edition (CEE). Motorola and NEC have since announced they each will manufacture handsets using MontaVista Linux and Openwave V7.

MontaVista executives hope CEE will become an attractive development platform.

It offers most features developers and handset manufacturers require, including power management, multi-threading, rapid boot, and multiprocessor capability, senior product marketing manager at MontaVista, Scott Hedrick.

Using two radio chips, a top-ten handset manufacturer was currently prototyping a MontaVista CEE version of its mobile phone that switches between third generation (3G) and voice over IP (VoIP) using IEEE 802.11x, he said.

Linux’s biggest asset in terms of gaining market share as a mobile phone OS is its capability of integrating with a variety of network types and the fact that its source code is accessible by carriers.

Even more appealing than the technology, however, may be the economics of Linux.

MontaVista, for example, charges for development rather than on a per-unit royalty basis.

“Linux is at the lowest end of the software bill of materials. And it is royalty-fee light,” manager of strategy and business development at Motorola’s wireless and mobile systems group, Kyle Harper, said.

Linux would be a force to be reckoned with during the next several business cycles as mobile phone production shifts to Asia, the “manufacturing bedroom” of CE devices, he said.

But the Linux mobile phone camp must jump several hurdles before the movement gains adequate momentum.

“The biggest problem with Linux today is it’s not defined as a single entity,” chief mobile analyst at Gartner, Ken Dulaney, said.

“Look at the Microsoft Smartphone. Microsoft puts the hammer down and says it will look like this or it is not a smart phone. That is attractive to enterprises and developers.”

Dulaney said that Linux must still go through major qualification and certification processes before mobile phone manufacturers would adopt it in large numbers.

Series 60 was Nokia’s development platform and a guarantee of binary compatibility, screen size and resolution, and hardware key availability for any developer writing an application to that platform, Java application manager at Nokia, Victor Brilon, said.

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