Motorola unveils first Linux smartphone

The mobile-phone maker has put its first Linux-powered handset on the market, launching an ambitious strategy of competition with Symbian and Microsoft
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

Motorola has launched its first handset powered by Linux, in a move being closely watched by those who see a bright future for the open-source operating system on portable devices.

The US handset maker introduced the A760 handset on Friday in Taiwan, along with eight other models, ahead of the Taipei International Telecommunications & Networking Show, which begins on Saturday. The A760 is a high-end smartphone whose functionality includes a PDA-style personal information management suite, a video player, a music player, and an instant messaging tool. It will initially be available only in the Asia Pacific region, with plans for European and US availability later.

Motorola has said it plans to eventually use Linux in most of its handsets, including more inexpensive models. The phone was announced in February of this year, at the same time as Motorola's ambitious Linux plans -- it is the only major mobile-phone brand using Linux in handsets.

Linux is collectively created by a large group of open-source programmers, many of whom work for companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard that sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-end server computers running the Unix-like operating system. Now, though, several companies are advocating the use of Linux in smaller devices.

But in the market for smartphones, Linux won't have an easy time competing against earlier arrivals from Microsoft, Palmsource and the Symbian consortium, which is a group that includes Motorola.

IDC believes that by 2006, Symbian will have increased its market share of high-powered phones to 53 percent, from its current 46 percent. Microsoft will have about 27 percent of the market, with Palm at 10 percent. Linux is predicted to take as much as 4.2 percent, according to IDC.

Linux is available for free, but cost wasn't the reason Motorola made the move, the company said. It believes it can develop products faster by tapping into the rapid pace of the open-source community that cooperatively produces Linux.

Motorola's Linux phones will run Java, which is a programming language and related software from Sun that overcomes differences between the particular processor and operating system used by a computing device. Motorola leads a multi-company consortium that defines Java for small devices like mobile phones, with participation from companies including Nokia, Vodafone, Samsung, NTT DoCoMo and Symbian.

For its Linux software, Motorola is relying on a software partnership with MontaVista Software. The company, unlike competitors such as Red Hat, concentrates on embedded devices such as DVD players or network routers. MontaVista makes money selling Linux programming tools but doesn't charge per-unit royalties.

Linux and Java arch-enemy Microsoft said Motorola's move doesn't change things much -- it's just a new variation on the fight to lure programmers to Java rather than Microsoft software. Microsoft believes it has the best total collection of software, including operating system, programming tools and higher-level software.

The software giant advocates the use of software such as its Pocket PC Phone Edition, Windows for Smartphones and .Net Compact Framework for use in mobile gadgets.

Motorola's involvement with embedded Linux extends beyond mobile phones. Last December, the company's Metrowerks subsidiary moved to increase its ability to supply software and development tools for non-PC gadgets with the acquisition of Embedix -- one of the first companies to put Linux into embedded hardware.

Embedix, formerly known as Lineo, sells Linux operating system kernels for handheld devices, digital television set-top boxes and home Internet gateways, Linux OS-based development tools and middleware for electronics designers. The development tools are now sold alongside Metrowerks' own development tools and those of Applied Microsystems, recently acquired by Metrowerks.

CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland and Ben Charny contributed to this report.

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