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Linux adoption - it's the ecology stupid!

The recipe for a mobile Linux-based application ecosystem

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Comment Why should an operating system be important for a mobile phone? It shouldn't, but of course mobile phones are no longer simple voice communicators, they are smart devices capable of many methods of communication and other sophisticated applications. Capable and complex, with a high degree of variety required to meet different market and user needs.

The handset manufacturers' need to get different types of products quickly to market makes the flexibility of an operating system platform particularly valuable. If they then make the platform visible for adaptation by mobile operators, other third parties, or even end users it has essentially become a general purpose mobile computing system.

With this level of sophistication everything becomes more complex. Businesses have to deploy mobile phones with at least as much care and management as they apply to any other computing platforms and users are faced with some admin tasks and probably more training and manual reading to fully understand and use the device they are carrying.

Small wonder that some mobile operating platforms are kept closed by the handset vendor and tailored specifically for their needs alone. This has become particularly noticeable with open platforms based on a Linux kernel. Based on industry measurements the number of mobile devices with Linux underpinnings is significant - worldwide it might have been as many as 26 per cent of smartphone shipments in the first quarter of 2006, according to Gartner.

The key points are these - worldwide does not mean evenly spread, and mobile Linux does not refer to either a whole operating system, or a single consistent operating platform. Two mobile Linux devices from different handset vendors may be very different and not capable of sharing applications.

While Symbian, Microsoft and even Palm smartphone platforms allow third parties to add applications and services in an open ecosystem, ironically many of the mobile devices based on Linux do not, and as a consequence lose out on the benefits of scale and volume. The mobile Linux devices community is split into too many separate parts, and detailed knowledge of one mobile Linux platform does not translate into detailed knowledge of another.

Mobile Linux-based device shipments are uneven, with more interest thus far in Far Eastern and Asian markets where the emphasis has been on key features and time to market, not new or interoperable applications. This, coupled with the fact that more often Linux is hidden from the mobile application developer, has led to little impetus for a mobile Linux-based application ecosystem.

One long-term contributor to the mobile Linux effort is Norwegian company Trolltech. Beyond the oddly named operation, presumably in respect of the legendary forest and hill Trolls of Norway, is a company with a broad deployment of embedded software platforms. It also has experience in the mobile Linux space that started off from providing the operating system to the Sharp Zaurus PDA.

These days Trolltech provides a fair amount of core platform code to mobile device manufacturers, including Sony and Motorola, but as yet these still produce precious little interoperability of applications, and hence no real momentum, despite fairly decent numbers of mobile device with some flavour of Linux somewhere at the core.

Now far be it from me to enter the quasi-religious debate about Linux per se - my philosophy is based on open pies rather than open source. In any market, especially one that is still young, it is far better for all players to expand the size of the overall market - the pie - and then take their enlarged slice, rather than trying to "own" a proprietary segment. This boils down to having an appropriate stack of common standards, ideally written down and officially endorsed - de jure - or if needs be, open and just widely used - de facto.

Getting broad adoption of the right collection of standard pieces, whether de facto or de jure, is still a tough challenge. Big players can do it through deep marketing pockets and integrated developer programs, but the diversity of offerings and suppliers in the realm of Linux for mobile looks half baked.

Into the mix, Trolltech has added a recipe of its own, the Qtopia Greensuite. Following on from the its earlier idea, the Greenphone developer platform launched in September, Greensuite is a packaged feature set based on a mobile Linux platform for handset manufacturers to build mobile phones that allow anyone to develop and deploy applications and create a larger market - a bigger pie.

When most companies talk about "an ecosystem" they're thinking about food chains and generally their next meal, so perhaps this is one Troll that isn't just thinking of its own stomach. However, the proof will be in the impact it has on developers and, crucially, on mobile device manufacturers. They have to want to be part of a bigger pie too. In the meantime, the likes of Microsoft and Symbian will still keep adding their own sugar and spice.

Copyright © 2006, Quocirca

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