Linux emerges as cell phone dark horse

SAN FRANCISCO (10/03/2003) - Thanks to its stature in the enterprise server arena, Linux has emerged as the OS dark horse in the race to gain market share on cell phones. A small set of vendors is backing open source to challenge cell phone OS rivals Microsoft Corp., Palmsource Inc., and Symbian Ltd.

The opening salvo came in July when some of the largest volume handset manufacturers agreed to create the CE (Consumer Electronics) Linux Forum in an attempt to extend Linux to meet the needs of CE devices, including cell phones. Founding members include Matsushita Electric Industrial Ltd., Sony Corp., Hitachi Ltd., NEC Corp., Royal Philips Electronics NV, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Sharp Corp., and Toshiba Corp.

Now MontaVista Software Inc., a Linux embedded-kernel provider, has joined the Linux cell phone club, inking an agreement in late September with middleware software company Openwave Systems to port Openwave Phone Suite V7 to Linux. Openwave's software runs on approximately half of all currently shipping data-capable cell phones, according to Brian Dally, director of product management at Openwave's client software group.

V7 will act as a rendering and graphics layer that applies Open Mobile Alliance standards for small devices to MontaVista Linux CEE (Consumer Electronics Edition). Motorola Inc. and NEC have since announced they each will manufacture handsets using MontaVista Linux and Openwave V7.

MontaVista executives hope CEE will become an attractive development platform. It offers most features developers and handset manufacturers require, including power management, multithreading, rapid boot, and multiprocessor capability, according to Scott Hedrick, senior product marketing manager at MontaVista.

Using two radio chips, a top-ten handset manufacturer is currently prototyping a MontaVista CEE version of its cell phone that switches between 3G and VoIP (Voice over IP) using IEEE 802.11x, according to Hedrick.

Linux's biggest asset in terms of gaining market share as a cell phone OS is its capability of integrating with a variety of network types and the fact that its source code is accessible by carriers.

"Linux can do complex routing in the background without dropping calls. That is why it is used in servers and software switches. Those same strengths can be scaled down to a phone," Hedrick said.

According to Hedrick, Linux will appeal to developers because it can scale to less than a megabyte and because it supports C, C++, and Java. Openwave adds an XML layer.

Even more appealing than the technology, however, may be the economics of Linux. MontaVista, for example, charges for development rather than on a per-unit royalty basis.

"Linux is at the lowest end of the software bill of materials. And it is royalty-fee light," said Kyle Harper, manager of strategy and business development at Motorola's wireless and mobile systems group.

According to Harper, Linux will be a force to be reckoned with during the next several business cycles as cell phone production shifts to Asia, the "manufacturing bedroom" of CE devices. As that happens, the attractiveness of an OS that has a low cost on entry and access to open source code is a major plus.

Metrowerks, a wholly owned Motorola subsidiary, is also looking at scaled-down versions of Linux for mobile devices. The company offers a development environment and programming framework for Linux called OpenPDA, which defines a standard user interface and APIs for third-party software developers.

But the Linux cell phone camp must jump a number of hurdles before the movement gains adequate momentum.

"The biggest problem with Linux today is it's not defined as a single entity," said Ken Dulaney, chief mobile analyst at Gartner.

"Look at the Microsoft Smart Phone. Microsoft puts the hammer down and says it will look like this or it is not a smart phone. That is attractive to enterprises and developers," Dulaney said.

Dulaney added that Linux must still go through major qualification and certification processes before cell phone manufacturers will adopt it in large numbers.

"Symbian has Series 60, which has been qualified by Nokia (Corp.)," Dulaney said. "Who's going to qualify MontaVista?"

Series 60 is Nokia's development platform and is a guarantee of binary compatibility, screen size and resolution, and hardware key availability for any developer writing an application to that platform, said Victor Brilon, Java application manager at Nokia.

Nokia currently offers four handset models based on Series 60. Other Series 60 licensees include Matsushita, Sendo, and Siemens. In total, Nokia expects to ship approximately 10 million Series 60 phones this year.

The example illustrates the number of hardware and application components developers must consider, even from one vendor.

A solution to the limitations of individual platforms is XHTML (eXtensible HTML), the W3C markup standard for Web-based applications that allows code to run on multiple platforms, according to Openwave's Dally. "Native code environments have almost no place on cell phones," Dally said.

Despite its open source strength, Linux must counter Microsoft's enterprise IT appeal. In fact, the company this week will keep the momentum rolling by announcing the name of the latest cell phone manufacturer to ship a device running its Smartphone OS.

Palm is also showing signs of progress, working closely with vendors such as BEA Systems Inc. and IBM Corp. It is also making progress on the Treo converged device, Gartner's Dulaney said.

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