The cloudy future of mobile Linux

Mobile Linux has potential, but is still largely missing in action in the market

Linux has been mentioned as a potentially leading platform for mobile devices for as long as there have been mobile devices. However, mobile Linux is still largely missing in action. The new crop of high-visibility smart phones such as the Samsung BlackJack, the Nokia E62 and the Treo 680 are based on Microsoft's Windows Mobile, the Symbian and the aging Palm OS platforms.

So why are some in the mobile industry saying, once again, that Linux is on the brink of becoming a significant platform for advanced mobile devices such as smart phones? And why should anybody but industry insiders and geeks care?

"Linux has had peaks and troughs in the mobile industry, but it's looking quite positive at the moment," said Matt Lewis, research director at ARCchart Ltd. The market research company recently issued a report entitled "Linux: The New OS Celebrity."

One reason for that optimism, according to mobile Linux proponents, is that this is an area in which Microsoft doesn't dominate, despite its best efforts. The reputed lower cost of Linux and its success in the corporate server market also encourage its supporters.

Perhaps most important, however, is that Motorola, the second-largest mobile-phone vendor in the world, has thrown its support behind the operating system, saying recently that it expects more than half of its phone models to be based on Linux by the end of 2008.

According to its proponents, the success of Linux will affect both the price of mobile devices and the development of mobile applications for consumers and enterprises. In other words, they say, the future of Linux is far more than just a matter of industry infighting.

The sceptical point of view

Linux's success as a mobile platform has been predicted before. In 2002, for example, a firm helping electronics manufacturer Sharp market its Zaurus Linux handheld device predicted that Linux-based handhelds would capture 12% of the market by 2004. Linux never succeeded as a handheld operating system, and except for a few Asian markets, the Zaurus didn't succeed either.

Skeptics also claim that the competitive landscape is too harsh for mobile Linux to succeed, even without Microsoft's dominance. Multiple market studies have shown that, worldwide, Symbian is by far the leading platform provider for advanced mobile communications devices. Symbian is co-owned by Nokia and several other major phone manufacturers, ensuring that it will continue to succeed.

In those studies, Microsoft's Windows Mobile and Linux trail far behind Symbian in second and third place. However, sceptics point out that Microsoft is working hard -- and spending a lot of money -- to ensure the long-term success of Windows Mobile. The fact that several high-visibility smart phones such as Palm's Treo 700w, Samsung's BlackJack and Motorola's Q are based on Windows Mobile attests to Microsoft's progress, the sceptics point out.

Even sceptics acknowledge that Linux is, in fact, currently being used in mobile devices. However, with only a few exceptions, its primary use is in low-end devices aimed at consumers such as so-called feature phones. These devices provide some mobile computing capabilities, like the ability to maintain personal information, but aren't nearly as powerful as smart phones.

"It's best suited for consumer-level devices right now," ARCchart's Lewis acknowledged. "It's very much a feature phone platform at the moment."

The question is whether mobile Linux can succeed as an operating system for more advanced devices such as smart phones, which are rapidly gaining in popularity. The answer to that question may well hinge on Motorola.

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