The momentum behind mobile Linux is accelerating because several communities -- and commercial giants -- are finally backing it.
Despite earlier efforts from pioneering companies like MontaVista, Lineo and Access, the open source operating system has always taken a back seat to proprietary mobile operating systems such as Nokia-backed Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, RIM's Blackberry and Apple's MacOSX for the iPhone.
I've wondered why. Linux seemed to have all the right ingredients for mobile devices: small footprint, lower power consumption, flexibility and extensibility. Still, year after year, it stumbled.
The mood changed in 2007. Linux had firmly established credibility on the server and desktop and mobile Linux was the next frontier. The first phones based on OpenMoko open source Linux hit the streets. Palm switched to Linux. Several mobile Linux organizations -- Intel's Moblin.org, Motorola-led LiMO and Google's Open Handset Alliance -- launched.
Now, the fruits of those labors are coming to market (not all) and in a relatively short amount of time we'll find out how much of a disruptive effect that Linux will have on the mobile market.
As one CNET writer reported on today, Intel emphasized the success of its Mobile & Internet Linux Project at its developers conference in Shanghai and indicated that Lenovo, Toshiba, Panasonic and LG Electronics will begin shipping Linux based Mobile Internet Devices later this quarter. Intel has backed Linux exclusively as the OS for MIDs based on its new Atom processors. Rising star Canonical has said that Ubuntu will support Intel's MID and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has been vocal about the need for Linux backers to cooperate on the mobile front.
And earlier this week, the LiMO Foundation -- with Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile, Samsung and Vodafone as founding members -- announced availability of its first standard mobile Linux platform, LiMo Platform Release 1. OEMs are preparing to release handsets based upon the platform, such as those demonstrated at the Mobile Congress last month.
Nokia's acquisition of Trolltech, a LiMO backer, also brings excitement amidst caution. As part of its buyout offer for the open source company in January, Nokia pledged to continue to support open source as part of its "cross platform" strategy for mobile devices.
Perhaps the most notable event this year: the software industry's sexiest player -- Google -- announced plans to develop a Linux-based mobile software platform dubbed "Android. At the November launch, Google announced availability of the Android software development kit and the formation of the Open Handset Alliance.
Android is based on the Linux kernel and includes the operating system, middleware, user interface and Firefox based browser. Several vendors showed off early implementations at Mobile World Congress 2008 in February and the first phones based on Android are planned to be ready in the second half of 2008. The work on Android is far from finished, as CNET reports today, but the excitement about it in 2008 rivals only that generated by Apple's storied iPhone last year.
Other Linux-based mobile groups have made significant progress on plans outlined in 2007.
In July, OpenMoko launched its first smartphone for developers use, the Neo1973, went on sale. But the real test is coming -- soon.
The OpenMoko company and open source project, (openmoko.org) which spun off as a separate operation of its Taiwanese parent company, plans to launch its first consumer smartphone based on Linux -- called the FreeRunner --this spring. Rumor has it in April. Anyway, the Linux smartphone -- which uses the Linux kernel, GNU C library, X Windows and GTK+ toolkit, will feature a 500 Mhz processor, WiFi, motion sensors, 2D/3D graphics rendering capabilities, an oval form-factor and 2.8-inch touchscreen.
Then there's the Linux Phone Standard Forum, LiPS, which was founded in 2005 by ACCESS, ARM, France Telecom and others. The forum published its first API in June of 2007. In December of 2007, the first LiPS Release 1.0 specification was published as promised. The LIPS specification includes a reference model, telephony, messaging, calendaring and scheduling, presence, the user interface service, address book and voice call enabler APIs.
It will be interesting to see which companies develop services and applications based on LiPS in 2008.
All of these developments undercore the importance of community-driven development and cooperation. It helps to have big names like Google, Intel and Motorola in the mobile Linux game but open source projects need a village to get rolling.