Mobile Linux — don't get carried away

Software companies don't normally sell mobile phones, and mobile phone companies don't talk much about software. Linux is changing the rules — but save the excitement for later. You'll need it
Written by Leader , Contributor

With Motorola openly talking about Linux as a major component of its future phone plans, and Trolltech selling a mobile phone to ginger up developers, Linux supporters can be forgiven for scratching another notch on their bedposts. But hold on. The embedded marketplace isn't as simple as that.

The most important conversation in mobile technology is that between operators and handset manufacturers. Operators want handsets to generate money by delivering controlled, profitable services: they most certainly don't want users going off and doing stuff just because it fills a need or answers a problem — least of all, if it's inexpensive. Handset manufacturers know better than to listen to users at the expense of the operators: whatever drives mobile Linux, it won't be the same user-centric sense of community provision that's made it successful elsewhere.

The great strengths of Linux for the handset makers are that it is extremely flexible and inherently multi-platform. It doesn't much matter what hardware you're thinking of putting in your phone, providing it meets a certain minimum memory and processor specification, it'll run Linux without much fuss and even less licence fee. That's a result of Linux' open source heritage: it does not necessarily guarantee a useful level of openness in the final product. Motorola already uses Linux in set-top boxes, for example, and complies with the open source licensing commitments: this affects the end users not one iota. There'll be plenty of reasons to play down the openness in favour of presenting a flexible, cheap platform to operators.

That's not as bleak as it may seem. Even if Linux's only benefits to the mobile industry were to be cheaper software and more freedom to adopt new hardware, the world would be a better place. There are three further factors though: developers, developers, developers. Even without a common hardware platform, mobile Linux will evolve common interfaces and create a market for innovative, independent applications. It can't help but do so, as long as developers have good ideas, the freedom to implement them and the common sense to share.

It'll take time. Mobile Linux won't be an overnight revolution. At first, it will go unnoticed. But soon the balance of power will swing from the operators to the developers and on to the users — where it belongs, and where good things happen And that's an open secret.


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