Motorola calls on Linux for smart phone

Motorola Inc. will launch a mobile phone that runs Linux later this year, it said Thursday, introducing yet another software platform for mobile phones. However, at least one analyst noted that the Linux-based offerings will likely not be making an appearance in North America any time soon.

Motorola’s A760 phone will run the open source Linux operating system and support Java. The handset will feature a colour touch screen and digital camera and will offer full PDA (personal digital assistant) functionality, Motorola of Schaumburg, Ill., said in a statement.

In addition to the applications on the phone when it ships, developers will be able to create new software to run on the phone. The device will support Bluetooth radio technology, USB (Universal Serial Bus), infrared and over the air connections for synchronization with a PC, Motorola said.

The A760 was developed in China and will first be launched in the Asia-Pacific region later this year, the company said. After that, Motorola plans to roll out its Linux and Java software platform “across a number of products and across a number of regions,” David Rudd, a Motorola spokesman, said. He declined to be more specific.

Motorola’s announcement could be a blow to Symbian Ltd., the consortium founded in 1998 by Motorola, Nokia Corp., Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Psion PLC to create a software platform for smart mobile telephones.

Symbian, however, does not see Motorola’s announcement as a hostile move.

“It is no change in our competitive landscape,” Peter Bancroft, a Symbian spokesperson said Thursday. “Symbian’s licenses are not exclusive and all our licensees have other products in development.”

Motorola is not pulling away from Symbian, Motorola’s Rudd said.

“We still invest in Symbian,” he said. “We will listen very closely to our operator customers and will make a decision on the platform based on their requests.”

Chris Jones, a senior analyst, at research company Ltd. in Reading, England, has doubts about Motorola’s commitment to Symbian, however.

“There is a big question mark over the future of Motorola within the Symbian consortium. It is surprising that there is no Symbian-based device announced yet from Motorola,” he said.

Besides Symbian’s software, the Linux platform also competes with mobile phone software from PalmSource Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

The number of platforms available could raise interoperability questions. Already users in Europe have trouble sending multimedia messages from one handset to another, even on the same network.

“Linux is still unproven on mobile phones. I think there will definitely be concerns over interoperability,” said Jones of “If there is any doubt in the consumer’s mind, it may put them off using these devices.”

Linux may have some star power, but Motorola may be too small of a force on the global handset market to make it succeed as a platform for mobile phones, Jones said.

“It will be difficult for Motorola to be the first to come out with a device on a brand new platform and to establish that platform. If it were Nokia, it would be different,” Jones said.

Ben Wood, a senior analyst with Dataquest Inc., a unit of Gartner Inc., thinks Motorola will have success in Asia, but does not see Linux on phones coming to Europe or the Americas soon.

“Motorola is market leader in China and clearly that is the market that they are targeting initially with this product,” said Wood, who is based in Egham, England. “It looks as though Motorola may be moving to a regional approach, with Linux for Asia, Symbian for Europe, and something else for the U.S., Microsoft perhaps.”

Still, Wood believes another major player on the mobile phone platform market has arrived: “This year marks the inception of the real battle with regards to the operating systems on smart phones.”