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Linux on mobile: manifest destiny?

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When the Linux Foundation emerged from the collision of the Open Software Development Labs (ODSL) and the Free Standards Group in January 2007, cynical observers described it, with some justification, as "yet another Linux knitting circle".

Probably more than any other software phenomenon, Linux has generated a plethora of lobbying groups, alliances and standards organizations. This applies especially to what is growing into one of the most important development areas for Linux - mobile devices.

The fragmentation of mobile Linux standards efforts and the confusing array of "forums" and other bodies involved in creating a workable standard has held Linux back and left the market to rival platforms such as Java Micro Edition (formerly J2ME), Windows and Symbian.

But this looks set to change. In the last year Linux has emerged as a strong contender as a key development platform for increasingly "smart" mobile devices. ABI Research recently forecast that Linux would come to dominate the market for smart mobile devices with a 31 per cent share by 2012. And rumors that Google's so-called G-phone, expected in spring 2008, will use Linux could also raise its profile.

The growing interest in Linux as a platform for mobile applications has also helped to galvanize the numerous standards efforts. Last month the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum and the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) announced "a formal liaison and framework for cooperation" at the Open Source in Mobile (OSiM) conference in Madrid.

Bill Weinberg, general manager of business development at the LiPs Forum, told The Reg he believes the fragmentation of Linux standards is not as bad as it might seem. "It appears a bit fraught, but when you look closer each organization has its own mission and deals with a different part of the stack. We are trying to minimize the overlaps and conflicts as much a possible," Weinberg said.

He went on that, despite the fragmentation, the open source, Linux-based platform is increasing its appeal to mobile device builders: "The traditional advantage of Windows and Symbian is that they each have a well-defined, single application programming interface, which developers can work to while Linux has lacked this. But Windows and Symbian have higher barriers to entry than open source and Linux - they require more financial and technical investment."

LiPS, Weinberg said, is concerned with defining APIs to deliver Linux applications: "We are looking at the post-load, after market for applications - not the kernel platform."

So what are the different groups working on?

The Linux Foundation has taken on the role of defining the kernel with its Mobile Linux Initiative (MLI).

Several other organizations working on various areas of mobile Linux standards including CE Linux, Gnome Mobile, Ubuntu Mobile and Mobile and Internet Linux.

The LiMO Foundation, announced in mid-2006, is also working to coordinate standards for a common mobile Linux platform. Backed by leading mobile phone companies such as Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Samsung and Vodaphone, LiMO aims to combine open source and proprietary technologies to create a "foundation" platform for its members to use for mobile applications.

Linux is not the only open source game on the block, though. Later versions of Symbian include open source options. Sun promoting its Java ME and now the World Wide Web consortium (W3C) and the OpenAJAX Alliance have signalled they might join the mobile party with an AJAX-based standard for mobile Internet applications.

The key development here is that smart mobile devices - and this increasingly means cellphones - will become the primary method of accessing the Web. This will mean an explosion of new applications specifically tailored to mobile devices. It is not clear which of these many platforms will emerge as the dominant - but if the Linux community can get itself together, it has to be one of the main contenders and certainly one for developers to keep a close eye on.®

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