Open Source Mobile Operating Platforms

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Examples

  1. LiMo Foundation
  2. Symbian Foundation
  3. Android
  4. Open Handset Alliance

History

Stephen Walli:

"Symbian and Microsoft were able to deliver powerful smartphone operating systems that ran on a wide variety of handsets across all the mobile networks within their regulatory environments. They were rewarded through their per handset royalty. Handset companies, however, are exploring Linux as a mobile operating system platform.

Symbian and Microsoft looked to China, India, and other developing economies and assumed a proportionate claim of market share as those markets evolved. The problem from the handset manufacturer perspective changes when you start considering billions of dollars in royalty payments from those potential markets. At that level of cost, Linux experimentation and investment makes good business sense.

Motorola delivered the Ming phone into China using a Linux base. This was almost a year before the iPhone was announced and, for the Chinese market, was arguably a more useful phone. The Ming supported full stylus input for Chinese characters, an enormous consideration for texting. The Ming also had the first 2 megapixel camera, a media player, and came in a sleek package.

At the same time, Nokia was delivering the N770 and N800 Series Internet tablets, devices not much bigger than the first iPhones, with stylus input and a viewing area similar to the iPhone. These were Linux-based and Nokia was working directly in the open source community on several fronts to maintain concurrency with the Debian Linux distribution rather than living on a fork. From these efforts, Nokia developed the Maemo open source developer community.

This was a significant step. As the handset industry changed and the operating system royalty became a problem, each handset manufacturer wrestled with Linux. Each wanted a royalty free operating system, but trying to integrate into the Linux community has been a source of frustration. Things that are critically important to handset manufacturers, such as battery life, aren't necessarily interesting to the mainstream Linux community. Each handset manufacturer was forced to fork with the attendant costs. Nokia, working within an existing community, was a huge step forward.

Out of the desire to avoid forking Linux came LiMo. LiMo is a not-for-profit organization formed by the key mobile players in January 2007 to collaborate on a Linux kernel for mobile. This level of collaboration is not foreign as the mobile handset manufacturers shared technology through Symbian Inc. for ten years. Symbian Ltd. was a for-profit corporation, but its primary shareholders and board members were the handset manufacturers. The handset manufacturers do not want to fall into the trap that the PC manufacturers fell into with Microsoft, where the manufacturers took the biggest hit in the narrow margin price war, while Microsoft made money on the operating system. So, for the handset manufacturers to work collectively to manage mobile operating system costs while continuing to deliver their own differentiation on the handset makes good economic sense.

Before Google announced Android and before Nokia announced that Symbian would become open source, LiMo was likely the best opportunity for a shared royalty-free Linux mobile platform. LiMo's downfall will probably be Nokia's proven ability to work directly with the open source community. With the formation of the Symbian Foundation and the Open Handset Alliance, it remains to be seen if LiMo will deliver the Linux distribution for mobile, or whether the handset manufacturers will choose to instead focus investment in the other two efforts.

There are other Linux-based efforts underway in the mobile Internet space. Intel created Moblin to work on a similar mobile focused Linux distribution for the growing "netbook" and in-vehicle devices. Canonical Ltd., the primary developer of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, is working on the Ubuntu Mobile Internet Device Edition (MID) which is focused on the growing netbook market. Each of these are carefully not targeting the mobile phone space. It will be interesting to see how this space evolves as the mobile phone and laptop/netbook technology spaces converge." (http://www.osbr.ca/ojs/index.php/osbr/article/view/818/790)


More Information

  1. The above article by Stephen Walli also discusses Android and the Symbian Foundation, see at http://www.osbr.ca/ojs/index.php/osbr/article/view/818/790
  2. P2P Telephony