LiMo chief talks rivals, Nokia and mobile Linux

Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation, discusses its first mobile Linux platform release and the implications of Nokia's acquisition of Trolltech
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

On Monday, the LiMo Foundation, an industry consortium that wants to put Linux technology onto mobile handsets, announced the first release of its shared platform.

The foundation also announced the immediate availability of the application programming interface (API) set for the platform. Prior to the announcements, ZDNet.co.uk spoke with LiMo's executive director, Morgan Gillis, to discuss the platform, LiMo's rivals and Nokia's entry into the organisation.

Q: Could you go into further detail on Monday's announcements?
A: We're announcing that the first release of the platform will be available in March. We are also announcing that the APIs will be available immediately on the public website. What we're doing in this phase is to push the platform out to the whole industry, in order to provide, particularly [to] developers, an opportunity to look inside the platform and formulate their own plans to target the LiMo platform as a channel to market.

All LiMo members can implement the platform in their phones and, obviously, we have a good number of handset makers inside LiMo. The first release of the platform is made up of technologies that were created by the six LiMo founder members [Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodafone]. So the technology within the first release has already been deployed in handsets — it started going into handsets from about three years ago.

What LiMo is doing with Release 1 is to reintegrate that technology to form the LiMo platform. In all of the major areas of the platform, this is technology which has been extensively market-proven.

Could you expand on the API set announcement you have made?
We're doing something quite radical — we're offering the API specifications out to the general public from Monday. This will enable anybody, in any corner of the industry, from large companies that are not inside [LiMo] yet to small developers, to look inside the LiMo platform and begin preparing.

If you want to implement the LiMo platform, do you need to be a member of the organisation?
Yes, from the [manufacturer] side. In order to ship the LiMo platform onto another customer you need to be a member; to develop for it, you don't.

One member of the LiMo Foundation, who asked to remain nameless, has referred to the LiMo's programme as "one of certification". This company claims that its contributions to the platform have not yet been approved. Does this ring true with you?
That is not a comment that makes a great deal of sense to me. The handset companies that are inside LiMo are each developing handsets using the LiMo platform, and there is a LiMo approval programme for handsets which implement the platform. That programme is running very smoothly — I don't think anyone is waiting for certification.

Analysts have noted that Nokia, by buying the LiMo member Trolltech, has entered the consortium "through the back door". Do you view that acquisition in this way?
There are further stages to go before anyone could really say that with certainty; the acquisition of Trolltech needs to be [approved by regulatory authorities]. Then, potentially, Nokia would be the owner of a member of LiMo — that would be the situation.

Do you think the Trolltech acquisition would lessen Nokia's reliance on Symbian?
I would tend to look at it with a slightly broader, more strategic view. We can all see that Nokia has, for the past two to three years, been concentrating its focus and investments and acquisitions on the user-experience layer — both the user interface and, through [Nokia's internet services platform] Ovi, the content as well. As a strategy, that...

...complements what we're doing at LiMo quite perfectly.

What LiMo does is to focus exclusively on middleware and to create the middleware platform within an open and transparent governance model that is comfortable for the whole industry. I think Nokia's strategy is clear, their focus is clear and they have said themselves they are moving into a cross-platform mode, which at least implies less dependence on any one underlying platform.

Are you happy with Nokia's method of entry into LiMo?
LiMo's role is unification of mobile Linux and we mean unification in the true sense, so we really do welcome and accommodate all parts of the industry. We began with four large handset companies and two very large operators just one year ago. At the time, some people said you can't get big industry leaders to work together in a productive way. Through the announcements we're making, we're proving that the LiMo model does work. It allows major industry forces to collaborate productively while also leaving them free to compete very fully in other areas of technology — the areas which sit above the value line.

What exactly is Trolltech bringing to the LiMo Foundation? After all, you use GTK as your graphical user interface (GUI) toolkit, rather than Trolltech's Qt.
Trolltech has Qt and other technologies as well, including those that reside in Qtopia [the embedded offshoot of Qt]. They also have an extraordinarily deep experience within the [operating system] world, with a strong focus on mobile. I don't personally have specific expectations about pieces of technology that Trolltech may contribute, but I have a very strong sense that they can contribute fully because of their deep understanding of the open-source development world.

Trolltech quietly left the LiPS Forum around the same time it started negotiations with Nokia. It then announced its membership of LiMo at the start of this year, shortly before the Nokia acquisition was announced. Was this timing coincidental? Did you know the Nokia deal was on the cards?
No, we're certainly not privy to negotiations between Trolltech and Nokia, so "no" to that part of the question. On leaving LiPS and joining LiMo, typically [our] pre-joining discussions with a new company will run across three to five months. So we developed a good understanding of why Trolltech were interested in joining LiMo. We assumed they were moving their focus from LiPS to LiMo. Our dialogue with Trolltech goes back through four or five months.

Would you say LiMo is emerging as a winner against LiPS?
The approaches are very different. The LiPS approach has been a traditional standards-body approach, using committees to write specifications and then publishing specifications from which others would be expected to develop code. The LiMo approach is fully code-centric. What LiMo produces is a real set of technologies which go straight into handsets and go straight out to developers to develop applications for those handsets. LiMo [goes about it in a more] pragmatic, business-minded way. The proprietary layer is more attractive [to our members].

LiPS released its specifications last December. Did they beat you to the punch?
The punch is not producing API specifications — the punch is delivering a software platform and then bringing handsets into the hands of consumers.

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