Making Mobile Linux Easier
By Carlo Longino, Wed Feb 09 01:00:00 GMT 2005

The level of hype surrounding Linux as a viable handset operating system remains a lot higher than what's actually being done with it, but companies working to take the open-source OS mobile are getting a little smarter.

Mobile phones running Linux as their OS continue to represent just a drop in the ocean of handset sales and models, and whether the Linux companies are aiming for the wrong segment of the market or they're banking on developers that aren't really there for software, things don't look to be changing anytime soon. But Linux providers are wisening up to the mobile market, and making some adjustments to their strategies.

MontaVista, whose flavor of Linux is already used in phones made by Motorolaand some other manufacturers, said this week it would begin churning out several reference designs a year, across multiple chip platforms and using software components like browsers and PIM applications from different developers. It will offer the designs to handset vendors free of charge with a view to cutting the development time-to-market of a Linux handset from two years to six months, more in line with other smartphone operating systems. A MontaVista exec acknowledges that while the technological capabilities of Linux may be on par with Symbian or Windows Mobile, the integration work that's necessary to deliver devices to market is still a heavy burden for manufacturers.

Reference designs make sense here, where companies are looking for Linux to gain some traction, particularly at the lower and middle segments of the market, where using a pre-designed package is more palatable for handset vendors. It's also a strategy that helped Microsoft win Asian ODM customers when it launched its mobile-phone software.

PalmSource, which closed its acquisition of Linux developer China MobileSoft last week, also says it will release reference designs of its Palm OS Cobalt, which were developed with chipmaker Texas Instruments, in an effort to spur its uptake, since no major manufacturers have announced plans to use it. PalmSource also said late last year it would work with three ODMs to quicken the time to market of Palm OS handsets.

Given PalmSource's goal of using a Linux-powered version of its OS in mass-market devices, it seems likely it will follow a similar path with Linux. Regardless of predictions or Linux's capabilities, any manufacturer will be hard pressed to make a two-year development cycle work, and the cost savings Linux offers could very easily get eaten up by those development costs. So anything OS developers can do to empower vendors to quickly get devices to market will help pick up mobile Linux adoption.