Linux gets its 'Moto' running

Motorola's success with its Linux-based smartphones in China shows signs of the open source platform's growing influence.

Does Motorola's roaring success with its Linux-based "Ming" phones in China indicate that the open-source platform is now a serious contender against Symbian and Windows Mobile in the handheld device software platform arena?

The world No. 2 mobile phone maker, which debuted the Ming smartphone in March this year in China, shipped more than one million Linux-based units in China alone last quarter, according to research firm Canalys.

Other Linux-based Motorola smartphones that shipped recently in China include the Rokr E2 music phone and the sleek A1200 or Ming phone.

Motorola's recent feat in China helped cement its worldwide No. 2 position, surpassing Research in Motion, Sharp and Palm, according to Canalys. However, Motorola still trails top dog Nokia by a fat margin.

When contacted by ZDNet Asia, Alan Nicklos, vice president of mobile devices at Motorola Asia, noted that response for Ming in China and Hong Kong "has been great".

Nicklos also revealed that the Ming smartphone will be launched other "high growth markets" in the second half of this year. High-growth markets for Motorola are Africa, Southwest Asia, North Asia and Southeast Asia.

Support for Linux in embedded applications has been steadily gaining in momentum, as witnessed by several developments this year.

In June, six mobile players--Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vodafone--established a foundation to work on a universal, mobile Linux platform.

According to a joint release, the foundation will focus on the joint development and marketing of an API (application programming interface) specification and architecture. It will support source code-based reference implementation components and tools and leverage "the benefits of community-based and proprietary development".

Eirik Chambe-Eng, the co-founder of one of the most popular mobile Linux platforms, Norway-based TrollTech, has also reportedly predicted a "revolution" in the use of open-source software on phones and handheld devices.

His contention was that Linux gives handset manufacturers and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) "complete control", and in turn keeps Microsoft and Symbian at bay.

TrollTech is the provider of the Qtopia development environment and graphical user interface, which is used by many Linux mobile phone makers.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia, Wilvin Chee, director of IDC Asia-Pacific's software research, said: "We definitely see a profound effect in the long-term as Linux becomes a viable alternative for other OEM platforms. In terms of the cost factor and [application] modifications, Linux allows a lot more [mobile phone] users and developers to be involved.

Chee added that with initiatives like Eclipse in support of Linux, manufacturers, mobile software developers, and phone makers have the opportunity to engage in close dialog. "Lack of proprietary control allows proper dialog," he pointed out.

A check on the Web site showed that besides Motorola, vendors such as NEC, Siemens, Panasonic and Samsung have a fairly wide range of Linux-based phone models on the market.

Chinese vendors such as E28, NingBo Bird, Haier, Longcheer, and ImCoSys, also have several Linux smartphones retailing in various markets.

But while the open-source movement for handheld devices has been going strong, research shows that for now, Linux for embedded applications still has a lot of catching up to do.

Symbian remains by far the top mobile device OS, according to Canalys, with a 67 percent share, well ahead of second-place Windows Mobile, with 15 percent of the market.

It also doesn't help that top phone maker Nokia has refused to swing its votes towards Linux. Spokesperson Maija Taimi told ZDNet Asia that Nokia, a major stakeholder in Symbian, is "committed to the Symbian OS".

Taimi added that the Finnish phone maker "sees Symbian OS as the industry-best option for open OS mobile devices".

Nokia has yet to announce plans to develop mobile devices based on Linux, although it has introduced "selected open-source elements" such as JavaScript, to its S60 phone.

The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which belongs to the company's non-cellular device category, is also based on Linux.