OSDL plans Linux phone drive

Motorola Inc. and PalmSource Inc. are among the companies that lined up behind a new initiative Monday that aims to promote the use of the Linux operating system on cell phones. The Mobile Linux Initiative was launched by Open Source Development Labs Inc. (OSDL) to tackle technical challenges and generally support the adoption of Linux on handheld devices.

“There is a lot of momentum for Linux on handhelds, specifically for mobile phones,” said Eirik Chambe-Eng, president and cofounder of Trolltech AS, a company that builds a graphical user interface on top of Linux for mobile devices and has joined the OSDL effort. But because an increasing number of companies are developing Linux for mobiles, there is a need to coordinate the efforts, he said.

“All of the Linux developments are a disparate set of projects,” said Ben Wood, research vice president for mobile devices at Gartner. “It’s not like write once, run anywhere.” Companies involved in the Mobile Linux Initiative hope to pull together their developments in a common direction.

The group’s technical achievements will also be important. Companies like Trolltech are dependant on a good Linux kernel that can efficiently use processor and electrical power in devices. “This initiative is aimed at creating one good kernel of OS that uses the resources of the mobile phone,” said Chambe-Eng.

In addition to Motorola, PalmSource, and Trolltech, MontaVista Software Inc. and Wind River Systems Inc. were named as the first members to participate in the initiative.

Linux-based devices have been popular in Asia but so far haven’t had much traction in Europe or the U.S. Motorola has shipped more than 3 million devices in China that are based on Linux and Trolltech’s software, Chambe-Eng said. He expects that manufacturers like Motorola will begin making more of a push with these products into Europe and the U.S. in the next six to 12 months.

Linux is attractive to mobile manufacturers for its capabilities as well as cost. Linux may solve some of the problems that manufacturers face with building full-feature phones that may include cameras, color displays, video cameras and Web browsing. “The OSes that manufacturers are using are starting to run out of horsepower,” Wood said.

Still, he doesn’t think that Linux necessarily poses a serious threat to Symbian Ltd. or Microsoft Corp. Nokia Corp., for example, is quite committed to Symbian and while Wood expects that Nokia may look to open-source products for some of its non-cell phone devices, it’s unlikely that Nokia would turn to Linux for its mobile phones any time soon. Nokia’s 770 Internet tablet is based on open-source software.

But Linux is also becoming increasingly attractive because it can reduce costs for manufacturers. The Symbian OS ends up costing manufacturers between US$5 and $7 per phone, Wood said. A Linux-based phone would likely come in under that.

While there is a growing interest in Linux in the mobile phone space, it probably won’t have major implications soon, Wood said. “This is just a stepping stone in the emergence of Linux as a potential platform for mobile phones,” he said. “But it’s still a very long way away.”

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