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Company profile: Mobile Linux pioneer Trolltech

Having first developed a GUI toolkit 12 years ago, Trolltech now wants to make Linux a player in the mobile world
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Written by David Meyer on

The release of the Greenphone — the first open Linux-based handset that developers could programme themselves — in August was probably the first many people had heard of Trolltech.

But the Norwegian company, which in July became only the second Linux operation after Red Hat to float its shares publicly, had already played its part in developing some of the world's best-known software brands, including Adobe Photoshop Elements, Skype and Google Earth. And these are just a few of the thousands of applications using Trolltech's Qt cross-platform application development tool or its mobile spin-off Qtopia; others include NASA (for flight simulators), Volvo (for its human-machine interface for bus drivers) and Sony (for the Mylo personal communicator).

The idea for Qt began in 1990 when Eirik Chambe-Eng and Haavard Nord, two computer science graduates from the Norwegian Institute of Technology, were working together on developing a C++ database application for ultrasound images, which needed to run across Windows, Mac and Unix systems.

"The big challenge in the project was that we could either create the software three times or create a tool to make it once and run it on all platforms," Chambe-Eng tells ZDNet UK. "We found a few tools but they were all bad — we were young and naïve and said we could do better."

So they did. Their graphical user interface (GUI) toolkit became Qt, and in 1994 the pair formed Trolltech as "a commercial setting for this idea of creating the world's best cross-platform development tool," according to Chambe-Eng.

Nord and Chambe-Eng's first big break came with a 1995 contract to develop Qt-based software for a Norwegian visual enterprise modelling company called Metis. In the middle of that year, Qt made its public debut on the dual-licensed basis that it still maintains — paid-for for commercial use, and free for open-source development.

In 1996 the firm gained a second customer, selling 10 commercial licences to the European Space Agency. Later in the year, the Qt-based KDE Linux desktop environment and development tool was launched, solidifying Qt's position in the C++ Linux GUI market.

The company began to expand overseas, establishing bases in Australia and, in 2000, the US. That year also saw the release of Qt/Embedded (now Qtopia Core) and Qtopia, an application platform for handheld Linux devices. Cue multiple awards and half a decade spent establishing a 4,500-strong customer base.

Now fast forward to late 2006. Having floated on the Oslo Stock Exchange, Trolltech has also just released Qt version 4.2. This new version is the first to include QGraphicsView, an item-based canvas application programming interface (API), and developers are giving the company positive feedback. "Last year 80 percent of our revenue came from the Qt side," Chambe-Eng points out.

But the battleground is now increasingly moving to the mobile sphere, as feature phones and smartphones gain ever more functionality and processing power. Operating system (OS) behemoth Symbian is even making hopeful rumblings about the handset taking over from PCs and laptops within five years. Small-scale proprietary systems aside, Symbian and Windows Mobile are the ones to beat but, in the midst of the fray, Linux is steadily gaining traction in the handset market.

"Linux is going to be very important in the embedded space but it's not clear yet what the winning distribution is going to be," says RedMonk analyst James Governor. "The space is still fairly fragmented."

Handset giants Motorola and NTT Docomo are two examples of manufacturers that use their own Linux platforms, although Motorola is increasingly using Qtopia for devices such as the E680 and the Ming phone — fast becoming the Chinese market's answer to the RAZR in terms of success.

But major manufacturers like to retain control of their operating systems, whether or not they are based on open source. As this keeps eager developers from their full potential in creating new and innovative applications, Trolltech decided to...

...release the Greenphone.

Remarkably stylish for something that is only being released to developers, the Greenphone is a more-or-less fully programmable GSM/GPRS phone, and SIP-enabled (for VoIP and multimedia). It is targeted at creating applications for feature-phones, a segment of the market where Linux has yet to make much of an impact.

"Trolltech is probably the leader in trying to get an open Linux platform across multiple handset manufacturers," says Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. "Certainly they have a vision to try and turn mobile handset Linux into a much more stable and deep-reaching OS. They are trying to appeal to third-party application developers, and this is an area that's absolutely critical."

But mobile Linux has significant hurdles to clear before it becomes viewed as the way forward for the mobile OS. One obstacle is the consolidation of the handset industry, which is making volume very much the name of the game.

"What Trolltech's going to have to look for, sooner or later, is to sign up a major licensee making a major range of handsets using the platform, otherwise they will end up as a good supplier to the also-rans," warns Bubley. "They need someone to come out and say ‘We will be making a lot of handsets for mass-market consumption based on this platform'."

"There is some truth to that," concedes Chambe-Eng, "although it's not the only solution for a breakthrough". He points to Trolltech's "very good deal" with Motorola, which is beginning to extend beyond the Chinese market to other countries in the Far East and Middle East, but admits that a lot rests on "how the models will be received in Europe and the US".

Some analysts are scathing about Linux's chances in the mobile enterprise market. Freeform Dynamics' Dale Vile tells ZDNet UK that there is "currently almost zero demand for Linux on mobile phones in the enterprise space".

"The three platforms that have traditionally helped build the market are Symbian, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile, along with proprietary platforms. There is no explicit interest from the enterprise buying community and operators for Linux," says Vile.

Vile points out that "people don't care that much about operating systems on mobile devices" (a view with which Chambe-Eng concurs) and suggests that, without "critical mass", developers won't be able to afford spending time on building resources, with all the retraining that involves.

"The only people it matters to are handset manufacturers who will look for volume and demand. The thing for Linux at the moment is it has to break that chicken-and-egg cycle," he explains.

Chambe-Eng agrees that Vile "has a point" but remains confident in the developer community that Trolltech has built over the years.

"One of our big strengths going forward is that Qtopia is based on Qt and we have large portions of open-source developers being proficient in Qt. We have over 4,500 commercial customers using Qt. That ecosystem is in place," he says.

"The challenges going forward are on the marketing and sales side, establishing the platform globally," says Chambe-Eng, adding that the company will not be shifting its focus from its core products anytime soon.

He does however seem concerned that some members of the developer community think Trolltech will change for the worse following its public flotation. "We've been gearing up for many years readying the IPO (initial public offering)," he assures ZDNet UK.

"It's really the beginning of a new phase. It makes it possible for us to strengthen our credibility. We're very clear on the fact that we need to keep all the things that make us successful," he continues.

"We don't think only about the next quarterly numbers — in fact we've introduced the cake rule internally. If anyone is caught red-handed looking up the share price in working hours, they have to buy cake for the whole company the next day."

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