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A La Mobile CEO Pauline Alker Trumpets Mobile Linux

By Jay Lyman
Dec 5, 2006 4:00 AM PT

Despite its increasing use on enterprise servers and on company desktops, the Linux OS is perhaps moving fastest in the mobile space.

A La Mobile CEO Pauline Alker Trumpets Mobile Linux

There are challenges, though, as well as many possible directions for mobile Linux, raising the prospect of fragmentation.

LinuxInsider spoke with a la Mobile CEO Pauline Alker regarding the market landscape and the different directions Linux can take in the mobile space.

LinuxInsider: How does the market for mobile Linux look currently?

Pauline Alker: Mobile Linux is one of the fastest growing markets and has the potential to be the largest segment in Linux. With literally billions of mobile devices in the market, Linux on mobile could outstrip both Linux-based desktops and servers combined. In addition, by all accounts, Linux is growing in market share in mobile by displacing the proprietary operating systems like Symbian and Microsoft.

LI: Discuss what you see as the biggest mobile Linux strategies currently in the mix?

Alker: It seems to me that there are two strategies currently being applied to mobile Linux, which point to an opportunity for a third that we are pursuing. These two are the traditional embedded RTOS play and the platform lock-in play.

The embedded software world is used to a number of players providing kernel technology and tools that can then be integrated into a number of products.

Any required technology in addition to the kernel needs to be assembled by the OEM from an ecosystem of partners that the embedded RTOS (real-time operating systems) vendor works with and supports. This is a great strategy for closed environments where the technology must be tailored to each device. This has worked quite well in the context of mobile devices where the device really only had to be phones.

The problem with an embedded RTOS strategy is that manufacturers need a more complete solution. The complexity of the required platform, not to mention the operator testing and interoperability requirements, has reached the point where it is no longer reasonable for the manufacturers to provide the complete software integration and support themselves. They need a third party to do it.

The other strategy often acknowledges the importance of a complete solution and in many cases offers it, but does so at the cost of platform lock-in. These companies offer to support a Linux platform but include their own proprietary technology -- usually focused on the user interface toolkit and a collection of applications.

The goal is to gain enough market share to draw developers to the platform, often growing to the point where the volume of applications on the platform makes it the only relevant choice in the market. This is similar to the strategy that Microsoft has had on the desktop for all these years.

The lock-in strategy is attractive for the owner of the platform if it can be made to work, but it faces some interesting challenges. First, neither operator nor OEM wants to see a replay of the PC market in the mobile space. A single operating platform control point inhibits innovation and increases costs.

Secondly, there is no reason for such a control point to exist. Technologies like Java, Flash, SVG and Web 2.0 browser technologies continue to show that many of the services users want can be expressed in these.

As these technologies get more capable, they are likely, in classic "innovator's dilemma" fashion, to disrupt the proprietary, native application environment. Thus, the value of the proprietary native application framework is diminished in comparison to the PC.

In contrast, a la Mobile is pursuing a strategy that will split the difference. We are listening carefully to the customers' desire to have a complete solution and are providing it with our Convergent Linux Platform.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we have no vested interest in the success of one particular platform component over another. Indeed, we are perfectly comfortable in supporting any of a variety of user interface technologies or application sets as determined by the operator, the OEM or the overall market.

Traditionally, the OS is a fairly monolithic collection of technologies, tightly integrated, where separation is not easily achieved. If you want to replace the browser that ships with the OS, it's not likely to be possible. We think that the opportunity exists to satisfy the market for a mobile operating system platform -- by being willing to build what the customer needs and determines is in their best interest, as opposed to telling them what is in their best interest and only providing that. It's a unique view point, I think.

LI: Why is Linux good for the mobile setting?

Alker: Technically, Linux is probably the best solution for a modern operating system available on small devices today. It has all of the features necessary for the increasing capability of the devices, and because of some of the great work done in the past five years by a few true innovators, it has the ability to run extremely well in the memory constrained, power-conscious world of embedded devices.

Because Linux is an open source technology, it is ideally suited to a market that does not want to be held captive by a single provider. This lends itself to all kinds of positive market dynamics. Competitors can be admitted far more easily than in the proprietary-kernel case. That means demand for increased ability to brand the device through software is more likely to be addressed; it also means that prices are not likely to get outrageous.

LI: What are the challenges for Linux when it comes to the mobile market?

Alker: One well known challenge is the issue of platform fragmentation. This issue is being solved by the ongoing work done in standards committees like OSDL's MLI (Mobile Linux Initiative) group and the LiPS (Linux Phone Standards) group. Clearly, we need a set of base APIs (application programming interfaces) that are available in the device.

LinuxInsider: What impact is mobile Linux having on other platforms that play in the market?

Alker: It's helping to rationalize the playing field. The entire industry is beginning to see it is possible to have a viable mobile operating system supporting a variety of compelling services not owned by a single company. For those platforms that fit naturally into an ecosystem that includes Linux -- such as Java, Flash and the other application platforms -- it is only increasing their importance and reach. For the other platforms, Linux seems to be taking market share from them.

LI: Where do most handset makers stand on Linux?

Alker: All OEMs that we talk to are either putting Linux into the marketplace, have projects to do so, or in some limited cases are investigating how to begin Linux projects.

LI: What about mobile applications -- is this a barrier for mobile Linux?

Alker: I really don't think so. Because our platform supports Java and Flash Lite, we have access to an incredible number of relevant mobile applications out of the box. In addition, the Linux developer community is quite large and we've had no trouble getting the application support we need. Also, as mobile Linux continues to grow, we will see more open source projects begin to develop.

In my 40 years as an entrepreneur, I don't think I've ever seen such an incredible opportunity for so many. The combination of Linux and mobile handsets is very likely going to revolutionize the software industry.

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