Nokia and Intel defensive on MeeGo Linux patents
Safety guarantee too late for HTC
Tech companies are playing hardball on smart phones, but Linux could gain the upper hand with Intel and Nokia going on the defensive with MeeGo.
To get you on Facebook while on the bus, play a tune, and - oh, yeah - make a call, Microsoft and Apple are finding new ways to rein in the competition on phones: they're using patent threats.
The suggestion was that Google's Android Linux violated some claimed - but as yet studiously not named by Microsoft - Linux patents. Or was Microsoft acting the white knight, as some have suggested, by jumping in to defend partner HTC against prosecution by Apple?
That seems unlikely. Microsoft refused to comment on the details of its agreement with HTC, citing "confidentiality", but vice president and deputy general counsel of intellectual property and licensing Horacio Gutierrez made it clear Microsoft has a real problem with Android.
In a statement, Gutierrez cooed about the importance of patents and Microsoft's duty to shareholders and customers in denying competitors a "free ride," and held out the prospect of action against other companies building phones on Android. Those companies include Acer, Dell, LG, Motorola, and Samsung.
"We have ... consistently taken a proactive approach to licensing to resolve IP infringement by other companies, and have been talking with several device manufacturers to address our concerns relative to the Android mobile platform," Gutierrez said.
This is creating a great deal of confusion, leaving people uncertain about what patents are in question and whether or where Microsoft, Apple, or patent trolls will strike next.
It's also certain that the kind of trolls  who buy and enforce patents and have only really concentrated on desktop and server Linux will follow the Applesoft radar blip onto the goldrush frontier of Linux on mobile phones and other consumer devices.
MeeGo, YouGo, WeAllGo
MeeGo, the latest mobile-Linux effort - this time from Intel and Nokia - reckons it might have a chance with patents, too. Only instead of chasing people for royalties, they will use patents to protect those who adopt MeeGo against opportunistic trolls and companies like Microsoft that might decide one day that the best way to make some easy money or to hobble your business is by claiming patent infringement in the MeeGo Linux you are busy using on your smart phones.
Ari Jaaksi, Nokia's vice president of MeeGo devices, told The Reg Tuesday that Intel and Nokia could "guarantee and promise" that MeeGo is safe from any and all patent claims because of the size and breadth of the companies' patent portfolios, and also because of the size of Intel and Nokia themselves. MeeGo is based on the Linux kernel and uses common components such as X-Windows and Gstreamer.
"Both Nokia and Intel have a huge patent portfolio and we have put our investment into the standard Linux-based platform. That's a guarantee and promise that it's safe for anyone to take this platform because we will look after your investment with our patent platform," Jaaksi said.
"With the big patent portfolios already backing up MeeGo as an operating system, that should make some of the concerns go away... we'll defend that with our patent portfolio."
While it's nice of Intel and Nokia to turn patents back on themselves, the challenge will be whether MeeGo will be around long enough for Jaaksi's promise to have a practical impact.
Mobile Linux, reebooted
First, there's the fact MeeGo is just the latest in a line of efforts in Linux profiles for mobile, each with differing and overlapping members. The Linux Phone Standard Forum (LiPS), whose members included chipmakers and operators, joined the existing Linux Mobile Foundation (LiMo), home to handset and equipment makers and telcos. We've had Intel's former solo mobile effort Moblin rebooted from Ubuntu to Fedora between versions one and two, and then handed to the Linux Foundation for stewardship - the Foundation is also home to MeeGo. Nokia, meanwhile, already has a mobile open source effort underway with Symbian, which talks big but seems to operate as an adjunct to the Nokia's main corporate structure.
Open sourcers would no doubt justify this confusion as choice and diversity, and you just can't keep a good kernel down.
Jaaksi promised that MeeGo is here to stay and neither Intel nor Nokia are going to abandon it: "It won't happen easily that we'd forget about that and walk away... we are going to invest a lot and we see others starting on participation and development. I believe [MeeGo] is here to stay. It's going to evolve - there will be a revolution."
This means you can write at a high, web level, building web services for the phone - although you can also do that on the iPhone - or go deep into hardware acceleration for gaming.
"MeeGo devices will follow the same strategy with N900," Jaaksi said. "It's an open platform, so you as a developer can really go deep - they will be able to use graphical accelerators, going close to the metal and all kinds of capabilities."
C++, meanwhile, could tempt Linux and Windows programmers because Android requires knowledge of Java and virtual machines (VMs) as it uses the Dalvik VM for mobile.
Your input is not wanted
As for Apple and those other mobile Linux efforts, there's the openness play. According to Jaaksi, anybody can contribute to MeeGo as its governance is simple and is hosted by the Linux Foundation. Good luck inputting to the iPhone SDK roadmap unless you're the US Government .
Nokia's MeeGo man is optimistic. And arguably he should be: unlike PCs, mobile has an inherent inclination towards more, not fewer, platforms, so MeeGo's chances are at least good on paper. He promised the first MeeGo-based devices by the end of 2010 with updates to MeeGo every six months, and MeeGo running on ARM and Intel's Atom architectures.
Assuming MeeGo gets traction, the big unanswered question will then be how far it's allowed to run before patent holders come knocking, or whether they will be held at bay.
If all else fails, Jaaksi reckons that sheer numbers will defeat the lawyers and suits - the ubiquity of Linux on an ever-growing pool of devices. "It's going to get harder and harder each day to prevent that," he said. "It's a tidal wave that's going to be difficult for anyone to do anything about it."
Maybe, but as Microsoft proved when HTC agreed to pay it for each Android device it ships: if Microsoft and others can't dam the tidal wave, they could make money by surfing it. ®