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Symbian: Linux unfit for mobile phones

Fragments of an OS market

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Symbian has told the world that as open source operating systems go, Linux is unfit for mobile phones.

"There’s been a lot of misleading information over the years...about the fitness of Linux for the mobile space," Jerry Panagrossi, vp of Symbian's North American operations, told industry insiders this morning at the GigaOM:Mobilize conference in San Francisco.

"There has been wonderful work, fantastic work in the Linux community in the workstation and PC space, but when you drag that over into the mobile space, there is an entirely different domain with a different set of challenges that handset managers must overcome.

"This is particularly true with the resource constraints that we deal with on mobile devices - constraints in computation capability, resource and memory management, and power management. When you drill down and look at Linux...you realize it’s just a kernel."

As Symbian prepares to vanish into Nokia and open source its own mobile OS, Panagrossi argues that in adopting Linux, mobile phone makers are taking the industry in the wrong direction. They're creating more fragmentation, not less.

When building a Linux phone, he says, manufacturers can't help but move beyond the core OS. "You quickly gravitate towards a proprietary implementation, as you add an underlying device driver model [and] you add an application execution environment.

"When you ask the Linux solution providers what percentage of software runs across all of their platforms, the answer is near zero per cent. There's such a degree of high fragmentation in that space, and I think it’s high time we set the record straight."

This didn't go down well with Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMO foundation, a consortium of companies developing "an open and consistent" Linux OS for handset makers across the industry. "On the question of whether Linux is suitable for mobile phones: I think that is a question that was answered four or five years ago," Gillis said, sitting just to Panagrossi's left. "We've introduced 23 LiMO mobile phones since we launched last year...all of the issues have been answered now.

"The real question is about access to developers. Linux is a very prevalent technology. There are something like 5 million active developers, and the other technologies rely on communities that are much, much smaller. And in Symbian's case, nearly all of the developers will be owned by Nokia. It's a very different situation."

Which didn't actually address Panagrossi's point. You can argue whether Symbian is now irrelevant. But a (somewhat) similar point has been made before. As the COO of Qualcomm told us earlier this year, Google's Linux-based Android platform looks an awful lot like Mountain View's attempt to splinter the mobile market - so its cross platform web apps can thrive. ®

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