Friday, December 23, 2005

Does mobile Linux really have legs?

NewsForge writes a comprehensive article about the market potential and opportunities for Linux on mobile phones. Yankee Group analyst John Jackson said, "I think that Linux is of tremendous interest to the mobile supply-side handset vendors, platform vendors, et cetera. There exist stable, scalable Linux operating systems in the marketplace.

The issue with Linux is Linux wasn't built to do anything. It needs to be optimized, and optimization is significantly expensive. It has tremendous upside, but the caveat is you have to make a significant investment in making it work, and that can't be underestimated."

Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said, "[Linux] is going to be a player, but the more popular choice is one of the proprietary operating systems,. Once you get one of these tuned for wireless, you don't want to muck with it because it's hard to do."

Ovum analyst Tony Cripps "agreed that customization was becoming prohibitively expensive, but viewed it as an opportunity for Linux." He said, "My belief is that Linux could become a highly significant platform for mobile phones, but that it is more likely to show its greatest value in mass-market handsets rather than in so-called smart phones. The biggest problem for handset manufacturers is not smart phones. These are high-end, expensive devices representing a small part of the overall market and which are already well catered for by established operating systems/platforms such as Symbian, Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and to a lesser extent Palm OS, as well as Linux-based platforms such as Qtopia from Trolltech."

A "bigger problem for handset makers is adapting the often proprietary operating systems they use for their mass market phones to today's handset requirements." Cripps added, "Each must essentially be custom-built for each new handset model, and this is becoming prohibitively expensive and time consuming."

More opportunity might exist in the mid-range. Cripps said, "[Windows and Symbian] remain expensive and will not deeply impact the mass market for some time. Linux's real potential appears to lie in its potential to replace proprietary OSs for mid-range handsets, where keeping the so-called software bill of materials (BOM) to a minimum is crucial. Linux's open source credentials, even in its mobile form, and the resulting adaptability to different hardware that comes from the efforts of the open source community will potentially deliver both the low cost and flexibility that handset manufacturers need to replace their increasingly expensive proprietary OSs."

Gartner's Dulaney said "It's a modern operating system, but in many aspects it's like DOS in the early '90s. The incompatibility from vendor to vendor makes it harder on developers. It's highly variable from manufacturer to manufacturer, and it does not resemble Symbian, or Microsoft, or anything. The problem with Linux is people tend to think it's one thing. It's not."

Ovum's Cripps noted "the biggest obstacle to more mobile Linux is its origins on the desktop and server, where computing and electrical power are readily available." He said, "Mobile phones put far more of a premium on things such as memory, battery life, and real-time performance. OSDL, in particular, is clear on this point and does not consider mobile Linux to yet be ready for mass market phones in terms of power management and response latency for real-time events, even in the most highly developed mobile Linuxes. Bodies such as OSDL are important to the development of mobile Linux both in terms of raising the profile of the technology and in terms of focusing the efforts of the community in achieving some well specified goals. OSDL's focus on mobile Linux kernel issues and hardware integration is well complemented by the efforts of the newly announced LiPS Forum, which is concentrating on higher layers of the Linux software stack. These include common application and service enablers -- this work is intended to be applicable across both fixed and mobile phones. Third-party application developers should then, in theory, be able to create differentiated applications around common foundations."

Cripps thinks a major handset manufacturer needs to get behind Linux to spur adoption. He concluded, "Motorola has stated plans that will possibly see it across its entire handset range, but it's not rushing to make this happen," he said. "NEC and Panasonic have built a few Linux-powered handsets for NTT DoCoMo in Japan as well, but perhaps the strongest near-term potential may lie in the Chinese market, where equipment companies like Datang see handsets, and especially ones with low BOM and little outside control with operators, as offering much higher margins than switches; and where operators like China Unicom are taking a great interest in handsets in their own right, much for the same reasons."