Linux paves way for cheaper smartphones

3GSM: Enthusiasm is growing for the use of open source software in the mobile space, with a prototype Linux 3G phone on display this week

Several leading mobile technology players have cooperated on a project to explore Linux's potential as the major software component in future smartphones.

At the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, Infineon Technologies, Samsung and embedded Linux specialist Trolltech claimed this week to have created the world's first 3G smartphone built around the Linux OS.

The prototype uses a Linux kernel from MontaVista Software, a company that creates embedded versions of the open source software. The prototype features services such as video calling and video streaming, Web browsing, stereo speakers and Java-based 3D gaming. As well as connecting to UMTS networks it will also be able to connect to those that use the lower speed EDGE technology.

Although the companies have no immediate plans to put the phone into production, they say there has been widespread interest from mobile operators and handset manufacturers in the potential of Linux as a more open OS for smartphones.

"Linux will secure a significant share of the feature and smartphone segment market in the next design cycle, especially due to its openness and low cost advantage," said Professor Hermann Eul, executive vice-president of the communication business group at Infineon Technologies.

Dr Jurgen Paulus, Infineon's senior manager of product marketing, agreed the use of Linux, as opposed to an OS from Symbian or Microsoft, could lead to cheaper smartphones. "It's one of the big questions and I would say yes. Symbian is very stable, with all the relevant mobile drivers but there is a lot of interest in the potential of Linux," he said.

Paulus said that the real drive for Linux-powered phones was coming from operators, who wanted more control over their platforms.

Paulus also added that there was also a general clamour for anything associated with Linux but that it was still a niche market. "Techies are certainly enthusiastic about the idea of Linux smartphones but it is not quite mass market yet," he said.

The software platform consists of Infineon's UMTS/EDGE dual mode protocol stack, Samsung's optimised Linux kernel and drivers certified by Montavista. The prototype also uses Trolltech's Qtopia software platform for Linux based mobile phones and Emuzed's audio and video applications.

Trolltech is bullish about Linux's future in the mobile space. It announced at 3GSM on Monday that over 50 manufacturers are in the process of designing, building or shipping devices that use its embedded Linux software.

"The large number of leading organizations that are building new phones and other technologies on Linux and Qtopia will dispel any lingering doubt that Linux is going to be a core platform for mobile devices," said Haavard Nord, Trolltech's chief executive, in a statement. "2005 will be an important year for embedded Linux."