LINUXWORLD SF - Rocky road for mobile Linux

Idea hunters for mobile operators said Tuesday they see an uphill road for Linux on handsets.

Linux has great potential in the mobile arena, but establishing it there will be a tall order, industry participants told a LinuxWorld Conference and Expo audience.

Mobile phone users will have to demand the technology, and they are more interested in cool devices and applications than in a software platform for its own sake, said Greg Franklin, a venture capitalist at Intellect Partners who helps Finnish carrier TeliaSonera AB find investment candidates.

Franklin participated in a panel discussion Tuesday that was envisioned originally as a chance for mobile operators to talk about Linux as a component of their products and services. But it emerged as a conversation about the operators' venture capital funding for mobile Linux startups. When organizers approached the carriers about participating, that's the aspect they wanted to talk about, according to John Ellis, director of carrier market development at Motorola, who moderated the panel. Executives seeking startup innovations for T-Mobile International, France Telecom and Swisscom also were on the panel.

That may be a good indication of where most mobile operators stand on mobile Linux. They value its flexibility and are interested in new technologies, panelists said, but there is less going on in the trenches of actual device and service rollout.

A multimillion-dollar marketing push like Intel's Centrino campaign for Wi-Fi could help drive demand, Intellect Partners' Franklin said. But most mobile operators and handset vendors are too focused on promoting their own brands to push Linux that way, he said.

T-Venture of America, T-Mobile's investment arm in Foster City, California, isn't looking to any particular technology or OS but rather at products and services that T-Mobile's customers will want, said Claas Heise, its managing director. It's a tough job to get funding from the group, he said.

"I see ... quite a few companies coming with Linux-based solutions or applications to our doors," Heise said. However, they tend to be point solutions such as personal information managers. Only bigger things, namely applications and services that can generate additional revenue from a large part of T-Mobile's customer base, really grab the carrier's product managers, he said. Tools that could ease customer support are another area of interest.

"With niche applications, I don't really get a good response ... which I need in order to be able to do an investment," Heise said.

Motorola's own venture group looks at about 3,000 potential investments per year for its fund of about US$100 million, according to Harshul Sanghi, an investment manager at Motorola Ventures. It only actually makes 25 to 30 investments, he said. The company is looking for fresh ideas at all layers of the communications stack.

"It's still very early days in the adoption of Linux on the handset, and I think there's still a lot of problems that need to be solved," Sanghi said.

Franklin described his ideal scenario for mobile innovation: A startup invents something that's valuable to mobile subscribers, a venture team gets a service provider interested in it, together they translate it and present it to a large enterprise customer, and the new technology goes into trial there and eventually into commercial deployment.

Being able to build good partnerships is critical for this, he said.

"This is going to be the new competitive advantage in the wireless marketplace," Franklin said.