Motorola’s Linux-based phone with Intel chip debuts

Motorola Inc., the world’s second-largest mobile phone maker, on Friday in China launched its long-awaited mobile phone featuring both a Linux-based operating system (OS) and chips from Intel Corp.

The high-end smart phone, the A760, marks the first time the Schaumburg, Illinois, company has used both Java and the Linux operating system in a handset, according to a Motorola representative. The phone is also notable for its use of a chip by Intel, the PXA262 processor, which uses stacked flash memory and a smaller design than previous chips.

Originally announced in February, the A760 combines a personal information management software application, digital camera, a video player, MP3 music player and an instant-messaging tool.

The A760 uses a Motorola chip, the i250, to handle the communications function of the phone while the Intel chip deals with the computing aspect, according to a statement from Intel. The Intel processor runs at 200MHz and stacks two StrataFlash memory chips for 256M bytes of memory. Representatives from Intel, in Santa Clara, California, could not immediately be reached for comment.

On the Linux side, the phone utilizes the application development framework Qt/Embedded from Oslo software company Trolltech AS. “Linux and QtEmbedded has a lot of technical advantages to other operating systems such as the low memory requirement that Linux demands, as well as having a strong open source, third-party developer community,” said Eirik Chambe-Eng, president and co-founder of Trolltech.

There are already thousands of mobile applications created for Trolltech’s platform that can be ported to the A760, Chambe-Eng said, and with Motorola backing Linux he expects more applications to become quickly available as acceptance for the Linux OS in mobile phones grows.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of interest in Linux from manufacturers for the past couple of years, but we’ve now seen much more interest because Motorola is coming out with the phone,” Chambe-Eng said. Trolltech is now in talks with four other companies, which Chambe-Eng declined to name, for bringing out Linux-based smart phones in the Asian Pacific markets, he said.

Despite that interest, Motorola has not been forthcoming about its plans for the A760 in the U.S. or European markets. The company has declined to comment on specifics around the launch of the A760, such as its suggested retail price in China, or in which markets the phone will next become available. The company has instead relied on its partners, Intel and Trolltech to issue statements with details about the A760’s debut in China.

“There are very few details about Motorola’s plans for the A760,” said Rachel Lashford, an analyst at research company Ltd. in Reading, England. “I can understand what Motorola is trying to do by launching the phone in China as it’s a huge market and the company is trying to roll back some of the worldwide market share it’s lost elsewhere.”

The move is also positive for Intel as it will get its processors into a market that is expected to see widespread growth in mobile phone use, Lashford said.

“Linux has been gaining ground in China and perhaps Motorola is trying to launch a platform that offers an open and flexible environment where developers can create compelling applications for the handset, which is the key for any real success,” she said.

Motorola may be taking a wait and see approach to the A760, first gauging the phone popularity in China before moving it to other markets, Lashford said. “It looks like in Europe and the U.S., Motorola has decided to concentrate on it smart phone using the Windows OS,” she said.

Motorola has already begun selling its MPx200 in the U.S. and Europe, a clam-shell format cell phone based on Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Mobile 2002 Smartphone software.

The MPx200 is the first Microsoft-based phone to be offered by a major handset maker, and is seen by analysts as an important move for helping Microsoft establish its credibility in a mobile phone market dominated by Nokia Corp. and smart phone OS developer Symbian Ltd. (Nokia currently owns a 32.2 percent share of Symbian, having bought a large portion of the 19 percent stake in the company Motorola sold last August.)

“Phone vendors want to go with these common look and feel phones that consumers feel comfortable with and that is what the Nokia and Microsoft phones offer (U.S. and European consumers),” Lashford said. “Linux is seen by the vendors as being for a select group at the moment.”

Trolltech’s Chambe-Eng said his company is shifting its focus to the smartphone market which he believes is full of opportunity. “All the players out there right now are working on different solutions in parallel which is a sign that the market is wide open. My guess is that in the next year, Linux models of smart phones will be launched in the U.S. and Europe depending on the success in China,” he said.

Chambe-Eng stressed that the Linux wireless OS must be touted by a high profile handset manufacture before consumers become comfortable enough to accept the technology. “The biggest challenge has been that no major player has made the jump to Linux and created a visible alternative,” Chambe-Eng said. The A760 could be that jump, he added.

– With files from Tom Krazit in Boston

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