CES : Linux heading for cell phones

The Linux operating system has made the jump from computer servers to handheld computers, digital video recorders and wristwatches and soon may find a home inside your cellular telephone.

NEC Corp. said Wednesday it is working on the development of Linux-based cell phones with MontaVista Software Inc., and an executive of the Sunnyvale, California, software company said it is in talks with other major cellular handset makers on similar projects.

Work to investigate the use of Linux in cellular telephones started in the final quarter of 2002, said Akiko Shikimori, a spokeswoman for Tokyo’s NEC. The company is looking to use the operating system in handsets for global markets, according to an NEC executive quoted in a MontaVista press release although Shikimori said the company is still investigating the use of Linux and has not yet begun designing its first handset based on the operating system.

NEC is not the only company interested in using MontaVista’s embedded Linux in a cellular telephone, said Scott Hedrick, senior product marketing manager for consumer electronics at the company.

“We have a couple of customers that are actively developing GPRS phones for the Asian market, which they plan on shipping this year, as well as 3G phone projects for Japan,” he said, declining to name the companies. “We are also talking to all the right mobile phone companies in Europe and see some very strong interest.”

“A couple of our customers are developing more PDA-like phones with touchscreens but a lot of our customers are looking at developing medium-to-high end phones. One of our customers wants to move its entire product line to Montavista Linux,” he said but again would not name the company. “This is a manufacturer that is more focused on the Japanese market.”

The arrival of Linux will intensify competition in an already competitive sector. PalmSource Inc. has already scored some goals with several companies offering handsets based on its software. A number of companies are offering phones based on either of Microsoft Corp.’s two offerings for handsets: Windows Powered Smartphone for phones with limited PDA (personal digital assistant) functionality and Pocket PC Phone Edition for devices that are more like traditional PDAs.

There is also the Symbian operating system and it is this one that might be the initial loser should Linux gain a foothold in the cellular market, said Hedrick, who added that most major handset makers are using Symbian as more of a tactic to counter Microsoft than as a strategy for advanced handsets.

“Major mobile phone manufacturers are publicly backing Symbian but privately they are all either our customers or discussing how they can use Montavista Linux for their phones,” he said.

“The problem with Symbian is that it has the outer appearance of being a platform but when customers looked in the box and at the OS they were underwhelmed,” said Bill Weinberg, director of Strategic Marketing MontaVista Software. “So they have done a great job of building an ecosystem but not building a technology.”

At present, the Symbian operating system is licensed by Nokia Corp., Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Siemens AG and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB and the company says that there were 20 Symbian-based handsets under development as of December 2002.

To further the advance of its embedded Linux system into the cellular market, Montavista announced Wednesday a version specifically designed for consumer electronics devices including PDAs and cellular telephones. MontaVista Linux Consumer Electronics Edition will be commercially available by the end of March.