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Mobile Linux: Why it will become the dominant mobile OS

30 января 2007
In the world of PCs, there's one major OS--Windows and a couple of smaller operating systems including the Apple Macintosh OS X and Linux. In the server world, there's about an equal mix between Windows and various versions of Linux.

But in mobile today there are a plethora of embedded and open operating systems including Symbian, Palm (legacy), Windows Mobile, Linux (MontaVista and PalmSource), BREW and RIM as well as embedded systems from Enea and Wind River. Mobile Linux will become the dominant OS on mobile phones within five years. Here's why.

The current mobile OS solutions lock developers into a fixed architecture. This yields user experiences that have a homogeneous look and feel, but these environments make it difficult for developers to port their applications from one platform to another. Java doesn't help because there's simply too much difference between the devices. Up to 40 percent of some commercial phone application development engineering budgets are focused simply on porting to different mobile devices. I'll be writing about the porting process in the near future, but for now, I want to focus on the mobile OS and why Linux appears to me to be a good direction for the entire mobile market.

Take a look at the composition of the "software stack" made up of the hardware interface (device drivers), kernel (provides basic OS services such as task switching and file management), user interface and then applications.

In Windows PCs, the OS plays just about as important a role as the UI and applications. And, that's appropriate since services like task switching (running different applications) and file management and Windows Explorer are used just as much as the applications. But, in phones, the OS--particularly the kernel--is less important than the services, UI and the user experience. Thus, the value in mobile OS and applications has shifted from the OS being of equal value in PCs to the services and applications being at a much higher level than the mobile phone OS.

In mobile phones, the OS kernel is thought of as being embedded or "underneath the covers." The value has shifted from the OS to the services and applications. This creates an opportunity for the mobile OS to be "open source." Thus, Linux seems poised to sit perfectly well in the new mobile OS/services/apps ecosystem. The core or kernel becomes free and shared via open source with everyone providing their "value added services" to the core OS. The entire community contributes and the entire community benefits.

Linux was not originally designed for mobile but MontaVista and ACCESS (PalmSource) are working on power management, devices drivers and other services to enhance the basic Linux OS to make it "mobile friendly."

Mobile devices developed under an open source operating system have a distinct look and feel that reflects the developer's R&D investment, without the licensing restrictions that can stifle creativity and blur brand identity. Linux has the support of hundreds of thousands of developers. Linux also makes cross platform development to a number of (typically ARM-based) microprocessors easier and reduces the complexity of porting.

The OS kernel is difficult and costly to produce (multi-tasking, multi-threading, file system, interface management, etc.) but Linux has been developed over many years to provide excellent kernel services at low cost. In mobile, it's more important to work on the user interface and user experience than it is to focus on the OS like it is done on the PC.

PalmSource acquired China MobileSoft in 2004 to gain China MobileSoft's optimized Linux OS and applications that were already running on phones in China. PalmSource was itself then acquired by ACCESS (HQ in Japan) in 2005. The ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP) is a set of software utilities and services running on top of a Linux core provided by open source or from firms like MontaVista. ACCESS promises to provide backwards compatibility for Palm OS applications. That will enable them to leverage over 400,000 developers and bring them into the Linux mobile ecosystem.

Motorola began Linux development in 2001 and by 2004, Motorola had a number of phones running Linux through a partnership with MontaVista. Nokia's Linux operating system, called Maemo, is based on Debian Linux. The Nokia 770 Internet tablet incorporates Maemo and provides Internet access, VoIP and WiFi. It could be the precursor to an interesting family of devices targeted for WiFi regions in major metropolitan areas which would rely on pervasive WiFi coverage to provide users with free voice (via GoogleTalk or Skype) and basic Internet access.

Samsung, Trolltech, NEC and Panasonic are all working on Linux-based devices and Texas Instruments has developed a mobile phone reference design for handset operators that uses Linux from MontaVista.

So, what about Microsoft, Symbian, BREW and RIM? Microsoft will still play in the enterprise. And, Symbian will argue that they have more experience in mobile development. But, if the big momentum carries forth with Linux, then Microsoft and Symbian will have to adapt their services to run on top of Linux. It seems plausible that UIQ (a Symbian subsidiary that focused on the user experience) should operate on top of Linux rather than the Symbian core to be more efficient. Economically, I believe all of the current mobile OS vendors will come to realize that the value in the total offering is in the services and applications not in the OS kernel and, as a result, will shift their offerings to become value added suppliers to the Linux ecosystem. Further, new companies like Funamobl offer open source applications so the community of developers can add new mobile devices to extend the reach of the applications.

As a result of these major shifts in the mobile ecosystem, we'll see more and more phones based on Linux come to market over the coming years. It's a wave that will be driven by lower cost. It's a wave driven by economics of the ecosystem. It seems like a wave that has too much momentum to not happen.

I see the mobile Linux wave out in the ocean and am sounding the alarm—the mobile Linux tide is rising. Be prepared.

By J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., VP & Chief Analyst for Mobile & Wireless at Frost & Sullivan

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