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Red Hat pitches open source mobile phone OS

Not Linux for 3G

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Red Hat is to pitch an open source operating system at smartphones manufacturers - but it won't be Linux. In partnership with 3G Lab, it'll tweak the embedded Cygnus OS (eCos) for use in 3G devices under the name eCos/M3.

Red Hat acquired Cygnus, the veteran software libre tools specialist, eighteen months ago. The Cambridge, England-based 3G Lab provides a test bed and development environment for 3G, and we first ran into them late last year as they were about to unveil the first open source WAP gateway and SMS server Alligata.

So on the face of it, the 2.5G/3G business is a lot more open, particularly after Motorola last week announced that it would license its 2.5G and 3G crown jewels to no name manufacturers, a move that promises to commodities the smartphone business.

But realistically, eCos/M3 will have a mountain to climb, particularly starting so late.

With seven hundred of the finest engineers drawn from Nokia, Motorola and Psion's old software division, it's taken Symbian three years to deliver its first open phone the Nokia 9210 communicator. And that's starting with a base OS (Psion's old Epoc) that was already mature.

Why so long? A clue's in the amount of code packed into the 9210, which not only consumes most of the 8 MB of flash in the device but spills over to take up much of the 16 MB MMC too. While no one can call Epoc bloatware - it uses objects aggressively and native apps are tiny - there's much more to a smartphone (and the 9210 is 2G GSM technology) than a base Os.

So to provide a compelling proposition for a cellphone manufacturer, the package needs packet data, Bluetooth and infra red stacks, a Java VM, and probably support for streaming media too.

"Extreme schedule pressures and diverse product requirements force embedded product developers to develop their own run-time software technologies," acknowledges er, ... Red Hat in its eCos marketing backgrounder. Indeed.

And as you'd expect, with so much of the leading phone companies R&D invested in creating the Symbian platform, it's streets ahead of offering manufacturers this kind of time to market advantage. From here, it's impossible to see another single platform such as Microsoft's Stinger overtaking Symbian's lead and mindshare. But equally it's possible to see Symbian not winning, with recession-hit and debt-laden cellphone manufacturers choosing to develop their own in-house proprietary 2G operating systems and opting for Java as a common development environment.

In which case, eCos/M3 doesn't really help the manufacturers too much. However it could serve as a wake-up call to the Symbian partners, who to their shame, don't really treat non-Windows platforms any better than Microsoft. It's still not possible to develop Symbian apps on Linux, or even get your Symbian phone to talk to a Mac or Linux desktop PC. And that's terrible. ®

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