Mobile next battleground for Linux

A revolution in mobile open source is on the way, according to one Linux vendor, but analysts say the floodgates aren't ready to open just yet
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The co-founder of one of the most popular mobile Linux platforms has predicted a "revolution" in the use of open source software on phones and handheld devices.

Trolltech’s Eirik Chambe-Eng told delegates at the Open Source Business Conference in London that Linux is set to "make a lot of headlines going forward on embedded devices and mobile phones".

"We believe we are just now at the beginning of a revolution," he said on Wednesday, citing what he called the five Cs – complexity, control, customisation, cost and community – as motivating factors for manufacturers to switch to Linux.

"Linux gives manufacturers and OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] complete control," said Chambe-Eng, who also claimed that Windows Mobile and Symbian – Linux’s two great competitors in the mobile phone market – come with "agendas attached".

"Manufacturers are scared of Microsoft coming in and pushing margins away from the hardware. There are very thin margins in this business, and Symbian and Windows Mobile are typically expensive," he said.

Chambe-Eng claimed that the sale last year of Siemens’s handset unit to BenQ was an example of a company giving up due to the "headaches" caused by proprietary operating systems, saying: "Software complexity today has become the Achilles’ heel of the mobile phone industry".

Nokia’s use of Linux in its 770 web tablet is a tribute to the scalability and configurability of open source platforms, said Chambe-Eng.

While Linux had a lot to offer in comparison to proprietary systems, such as improved scalability and flexibility, it is lacking in other areas, according to industry watchers.

Ovum telecoms analyst Tony Cripps said that Linux-based smartphones are currently inhibited by the the lack of a standardised application environment for third parties to write to, unlike Symbian’s offerings.

Also, the hardware specifications required by Linux are still too high to make it a sensible proposition for lower-end phones, according to Cripps. "The hardware requirements of Linux need to come down to the point where it becomes a simple equation around numbers, where it’s financially more viable to do it with Linux," he said.

But a recent alliance between handset manufacturers and network operators, including Vodafone, could be a step towards making Linux more viable. "Once a carrier like Vodafone, which has absolutely massive spending power for procuring terminals, says it’s interested in a standardised environment based around Linux, then you’ve got to take it seriously, even though they haven’t really elaborated on how they’re going to do this," said Cripps.

Linux has recently seen its popularity as a smartphone platform rise dramatically in the Asian market, but Chambe-Eng also predicted a great deal of success for the forthcoming ROKR E2 music-centric handset, the first Linux-driven handset to be properly marketed in Europe.

The ROKR E2 is Motorola’s independent follow-up to the ROKR E1, an iTunes-sporting collaboration with Apple that saw poor sales due to limited storage.

Norwegian software house Trolltech produces an application platform called Qtopia, for embedded devices. Qtopia is in turn based on the company’s Qt platform, which has been used to develop applications as diverse as Google Earth, Skype, the Opera web browser, Adobe Photoshop Elements and space flight simulation modules for NASA.

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