Moto and Linux
By Leander Kahney, Mon Mar 03 12:00:00 GMT 2003

Motorola's adoption of Linux and Java for future mobile phones may be a sign of a major shift in software strategy for the entire cell phone industry.

Motorola, the world's number two cell phone manufacturer after Nokia, recently announced that all of its basic and mid-range phones will be based on the Linux operating system, with Java applications running on top.

Although Motorola remains a key member of the Symbian consortium and will continue to use Symbian's operating system for high-end 3G handsets, the company said Linux and Java will be used in more and more upcoming phones, and will likely become its dominant platform.

Motorola is not alone, experts say. It is merely the first mobile giant to go public about using Linux/Java. According to MontaVista Software, Motorola's embedded Linux supplier, half-a dozen handset manufacturers are evaluating the free operating system, though none have yet admitted to doing so, with the exception of Japan's NEC.

But the cell-phone industry is so fiercely competitive and the economics so harsh, many may be forced to go the same route. MontaVista predicts Linux is poised to become a major force in the cell-phone industry.

Looking for Alternatives

Motorola's first Linux/Java handset, the A760, is a combination mobile phone and multimedia PDA. The handset features a built-in digital camera and speakerphone, video and MP3 players and a color touch-screen. It will double as a full-featured PDA, and include a wide-range of connectivity options, including instant-on Internet access and Bluetooth wireless networking, Motorola said.

The A760 will be launched in Asia later this year, and other regions around the world in 2004. MontaVista said the A760 could be a blockbuster, shipping 50 million units. Motorola has a 20 percent share of the worldwide handset market, according to the Aberdeen Group.

Mike Bordelon, an executive in Motorola's planning and software division, said Linux/Java was chosen for the freedom the two systems offered, and the ease of developing new phones and mobile applications quickly and cheaply.

"There was a lot of internal debate (at Motorola)," Bordelon said. "We looked at the alternatives. There's no point in licensing Nokia's software and offering features after they've made them available. Then you look at all that Linux has to offer -- the features and the base of developers -- and it made sense for us."

Bordelon said both Linux and Java enjoy big developer communities, especially in Asia, where Motorola is a market leader.

Motorola is looking to the big growth markets -- China and India - where mobile phone penetration is likely to be high because of the poor landline infrastructure.

On the software side, the community of Java developers is not only big, it has proven to be quick and efficient at developing new and innovative applications, Bordelon said.

"We wanted the biggest base of developers possible," Bordelon explained.

In addition, using Linux and Java frees Motorola from the confines of licensing an operating system and applications from a third party, namely Symbian or Microsoft, Bordelon said. If Motorola wants new features, the company doesn't have to wait for Symbian or Microsoft to add them, he said.

On the hardware side, Linux is fast gaining widespread support with component manufacturers, Bordelon said. Again, this is especially true in Asia, where many of the world's handsets are made. Bordelon said most off-the-shelf phone components -- touch screens, video and audio chips, Bluetooth and WiFi radios -- come supplied with Linux drivers.

"We can incorporate these components faster because there's a Linux driver already written for them," he said. "We don't have to develop it in-house. It brings freedom because you can use off-the-shelf components."

Linux has a lot of rich features, easily adapted to a broad range of different products, from the lowest in the range to the highest, Bordelon said. The cost benefits of using a free operating system, he said, were an ancillary benefit, not a driving issue.

What about Symbian?

Motorola continues to support Symbian and will use the Symbian operating system 3G handsets, Bordelon asserted, but mainly because the products have already been developed. Longer term, Linux/Java will become Motorola's major platform.

"We are already down that road with Symbian," Bordelon said. "As we go forward, we will see more and more products running Java and Linux. At some point it will be the predominant platform."

Motorola is a 19 percent shareholder in Symbian, along with Psion (25 percent), Nokia (19 percent), Sony Ericsson (19 percent), Panasonic (8 percent), Samsung (5 percent) and Siemens (4.8 percent). Between them, they will launch about 20 different Symbian handsets this year. Symbian didn't respond to requests for comment.

Apart form Motorola, NEC is the only other major handset manufacturer to admit developing Linux-based cell phones.

Without being specific, Bordelon suggested other handset manufacturers are also looking at the Linux/Java combo. "I think they are all going to have to deal with Linux as a force in the industry in general," he said. "I don't think they can ignore it forever."

Bill Weinberg, director of strategic marketing at MontaVista, which is supplying Motorola with the "Consumer Electronic Edition" of its embedded Linux, said half-a-dozen handset manufacturers are working on Linux phones, though he declined to specify which ones.

"It's a secretive business," he said.

According to Weinberg, Linux provides significant cost savings. It is also a robust platform, in which connectivity is a key feature. As handsets become little routers for all kinds of networks -- Bluetooth, WiFi, GSM -- Linux's networking roots will begin to shine, he said.

Weinberg argued that a lot of wireless telecom infrastructure is also switching to Linux running on commodity hardware, just like the computer industry in general. Running Linux handsets on a Linux powered-network isn't necessary, he said, but it does provide the free operating system with momentum.

Weinberg said the alternatives to Linux don't stack up. Symbian's mobile platforms are technically strong, but don't have much developer support; while Microsoft is technically weaker, but enjoys a much stronger ecosystem of developers.

"Linux is the best of both worlds," he said. "It offers flexibility, cost savings and a big base of developers."

Weinberg said he thinks Motorola will stick with Symbian -- for now - to assure carriers it hasn't gone completely mad, and as a hedge against Microsoft. "Symbian allows them to keep the carriers happy and Microsoft out," he said.

Based in Santa Clara, California, Leander Kahney is an editor at Wired magazine and covers mobile technology for TheFeature.