Whither Mobile Linux?
By Carlo Longino, Tue Sep 07 22:30:00 GMT 2004

The open-source OS still hasn't picked up much momentum in the mobile world, but maybe manufacturers are trying to introduce it in the wrong place.

Motorola made a lot of noise last year when it said it would start using Linux for handsets. The hardest of the hardcore geeks' ears perked up, and analysts spelled doom for Symbian and Microsoft. But more than a year later, Linux has failed to set the mobile industry on fire. But BusinessWeek says, yes, Linux is still coming to a phone near you.

Only 1.1 million Linux-based phones will ship in 2004, Strategy Analytics says, though that may be an overly generous estimate, since there are just a handful of Linux handsets on sale, almost exclusively in Asia. But a director from MontaVista Software, one of the leading suppliers of Linux for mobile phones, says "every single mobile-phone maker is looking at Linux."

That may sound impressive, but it really isn't that surprising to think that the major device manufacturers are, at the very least, investigating Linux. After all, MontaVista has been bragging on its top-tier customers since at least January 2003, and Motorola's two Chinese phones have represented the extent of the tidal wave.

Clearly companies like MontaVista and Mizi have shrunk the OS down and made it suitable for mobile phones, so what's stopping Linux? A lot of misconceptions, really. The first is that just because Linux is open source, it's free. While that could be true for a manufacturer that took Linux and customized it on its own for handsets, most license a specialized version of the OS. While they're probably paying less than the $5 to $7 Symbian or Microsoft charge for their operating systems, it's still not free. And what phone makers save by licensing Linux for a smartphone may not measure up to to advantages that going with Windows Mobile or Symbian may provide.

The other big misconception is that there's a ready and willing army of Linux developers out there that can pretty quickly flood the market with applications. That's not totally true -- developing for a mobile phone is quite different than developing for desktops or servers -- and there are currently very few consumer-oriented Linux applications, with little emphasis on usability. It's still a largely "by geeks, for geeks" community, especially when compared to the sizable community of Java developers making consumer-level mobile apps. It's pretty telling when one major manufacturer has only got a Java SDK for its Linux devices.

There's no doubt that Linux can be used to create great consumer devices. TiVo is widely acknowledged as having a fantastic product with a clean, easy-to-use interface, and it's powered by Linux. But it's essentially a closed system that doesn't rely on outside developers to expand its functionality through applications. This could indicate, as one analyst quoted in the BusinessWeek article suggests, that the future of Linux is in mid-range feature phones rather than high-end smartphones.

Manufacturers could develop the applications they need -- e-mail clients, MP3 players, games and the like -- or license them from developers (companies like Real and Openwave are already porting their mobile apps over to Linux). Closing off the OS lets the phone manufacturer do exactly what they want with it and the UI, then they can add Java support to allow users to install applications.

This leverages the main benefit of Linux -- its lower relative cost -- while avoiding the problem of releasing a phone whose premium price is based on the ability to add outside applications into an environment where so few "non-geek" applications exist.