Closed iPhone creates opportunities for Linux phones

Open source mobility can benefit from Apple's proprietary approach, says Tom Yager

With iPhone a closed platform, Linux gets a wide-open road for phones and other smart devices.

Linux developers have been dying for a phone of their own ever since Sharp killed the Zaurus Linux-based PDA and Apple’s decision to close iPhone to third-party applications gave the green light to Linux phones and mobile devices.

The LinuxWorld Expo 2007 in San Francisco last month basked in Apple’s unwitting generosity, with one booth after another featuring fledgling mobile Linux projects prospecting for funding, direction, and developers — the whole exhibit floor had the feel of a mining town that was just getting its footing.

Linux on mobile devices is nothing new; success would be. It would take a phone handset maker the size of Motorola to make mobile Linux a hit, and as it happens, Motorola has staked a claim. Motorola’s been fiddling with Linux for some time, promising to open the Linux-based phone OS that it uses on a couple of shipping models, but, like many other exhibitors in the mobile Linux realm, it can’t decide where to draw the line between protected intellectual property and The Public Good.

As a result, in Motorola’s booth as at its developer site, Motorola teases a couple of Linux phones in its current line-up, but it won’t commit to open-sourcing the phones’ OS. That’s the very dilemma that Apple faced with iPhone, and Apple came down in favour of closed-ness. Motorola had to show up at its LinuxWorld Expo booth with Eclipse-based software development tools, ably demonstrated by a booth techie who seemed fed up with a whole week of being asked, “have you opened your phones’ Linux yet?”

He seemed so pleased at having a chance to demo Motorola’s Eclipse toolset that I felt compelled to stay through his demo, despite a tug in the direction of Palm’s booth, where an extraordinarily capable, albeit far beefier heir apparent to the sorely missed Zaurus was on display.

And Palm’s Linux gadget makes phone calls — of the big players in handsets, Palm is definitely where the mobile Linux action is. Its Foleo “mobile companion” is everything you could want in a sub-sub-notebook clamshell: An efficient Intel Xscale 32-bit ARM CPU, five hours of battery life, a 1024 x 600 display, support for an external display, storage expansion through SD and Compact Flash memory cards as well as USB, Palm, and Windows Mobile sync, wi-fi, and an Ubuntu Linux development environment.

You can hack Foleo and flash your code directly to the Foleo’s non-volatile memory. You do so at your own risk but also, likely, to your delight. Foleo isn’t a phone, although it will connect to the internet through a Palm or Windows Mobile phone if you have one, and Foleo doesn’t play media files. But representatives in Palm’s LinuxWorld Expo booth were quick to respond to questions about Foleo’s limitations with “we’re actively looking for developers”. Foleo pushes enough standards buttons, including DirectFB graphics, to draw developers easily. Palm promises an introductory price of US$499 (NZ$696) and delivery “this [northern] summer”, but Palm booth reps told me that the thing is finished.

In a booth far less flashy, an outfit called OpenMoko was showing developer previews of a gorgeous, fully open-source US$300 Linux phone called Neo, that’s already sold out. The device has tons of gawk appeal for its UI’s visual similarities to iPhone (it looks nothing like you’d expect phone Linux to look), but publicity on Neo hit before iPhone made its debut. The company that makes Neo is in transition, as it were, in the process of being spun off from its parent. But OpenMoko is real, with matching .org and .com URLs and everything, and I’m curious about where the project will end up.

I’m curious about the whole mobile Linux field in general — we’ve been here before with memorably limited success, but iPhone’s near perfection, despite its tease/denial game with open source developers, may have been just the shot in the arm that will put Linux on a successful phone.

As I said about iPhone, bragging about running an open OS on your device, when source code for said device is not published, is noise. Motorola is on the brink of going truly open or emulating iPhone’s business model. Perhaps it’s waiting to see how Apple fares. Palm, OpenMoko and some others are pushing ahead. Mobile Linux is not a gold mine yet, but whatever gold there is to be had is completely untapped.

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