Chinese vendor offers Linux mobile platform

After launching two of the world's first Linux smart phones, China's E28 is now offering handset manufacturers the opportunity to license its software and hardware designs based on the increasingly popular open-source operating system.

"With our technology, manufacturers can bring their own Linux-based smart phones to market within only a couple of months," said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Roger Kung, in an interview this week at the LinuxWorld conference and exhibition in Frankfurt, Germany. "We view Linux as a very powerful contender to the smart phone operating system software developed by Microsoft and Symbian."

E28 specializes in the design and development of smart phone devices, reference designs and application software. Smart phones are becoming increasingly popular among business users seeking one device that combines the worlds of mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants).

Last September, the Shanghai-based company raised eyebrows in the fledgling smart phone market with the launch of its e2800 model, which Kung claims to be "the world's first commercially available Linux smart phone." The Chinese startup beat Motorola to market after the U.S. company, which announced plans for a Linux phone in February 2003, delivered its A760 in October of that year.

E28's slight edge over Motorola in putting Linux phones in users' hands is no coincidence: Kung was president of Motorola's personal communications group in Asia before starting his own company in 2002.

The e2800 was followed in July by the e2800+, featuring a clamshell design and video capability.

Now the Chinese company has decided to license its Linux software and hardware reference design, based on both of these productions, in the hope of creating a larger market for Linux smart phones, according to Kung.

That, however, could prove a tall order. "Like Microsoft with its Smartphone software, companies pushing Linux will have the same problem getting their operating system onto the handsets of major vendors," said Neil Mawston, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics. "Symbian already has a very strong position in this market, thanks in large part to Nokia."

Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, is also the largest stakeholder in Symbian, a consortium of several major manufacturers including Samsung Electronics, Siemens and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications.

Strategy Analytics estimates the global market share of Linux smart phones to be around 5 percent by 2009. "For the next few years at least, Linux will be a niche market -- albeit a relatively large one -- with the highest penetration expected in China and possibly Japan," Mawston said.

Earlier this year, Japan's NTT DoCoMo said it plans to provide money to six phone makers to help them develop advanced handsets based on both Linux and Symbian systems.

E28's platform offerings are targeted at manufacturers of all sizes, with one "big brand" vendor poised to sign an agreement, according to Kung.

The E28 software platform includes applications such as telephony, messaging (Short Message Service, Multimedia Messaging Service and e-mail), Internet browsers, multimedia systems (MP4, 3GP, H.263 and more), multilingual handwriting recognition and data synchronization with Windows PCs and Mac OS X systems. The platform is immediately available.

The hardware reference design, based on E28 products already on the market, provides detailed schematics, bill of materials and other design documentation. A detailed product offering will be announced in the first quarter of 2005.

Later this year, E28 plans to launch the e2808, a high-performance multimedia smart phone based on Linux and aimed users in the U.S. and Europe. This launch will be followed earlier next year by the e2818, a Linux smart phone for users who want a high level of security.

Why Linux? Kung cited several reasons. First, Linux is a nonproprietary, standards-based open system that can lead to a faster and higher rate of innovation, he said.

The software can also be customized for embedded systems. "Because we control the code, we have more freedom to customize it and optimize software to meet a customer's specific needs," Kung said. "This is a huge advantage of open-source software over closed source."

Other advantages include lower development costs and superior security, according to Kung.

E28 is also a founding member of the Linux Mobile Alliance, a new industry group that is promoting embedded Linux as a major smart phone operating system.

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