Innovating Up the Mobile Linux Stack

In the past five years, the mettle of mobile Linux has been tested — and it has deservedly earned a shining new reputation as a real technology of choice — an embedded operating system and a flexible platform for truly open innovation. Linux has even gained the status of the de facto operating system for the growing MID (mobile Internet device) market and for bringing intelligent devices to market faster and more cost-effectively. There has never been such a historic moment and opportunity for Linux to shine and succeed in the market — but can mobile Linux developers rise to the challenge and deliver the user experiences the market is waiting for?

As the Internet and Internet services continue to play an ever increasing role in our everyday lives, the need to access the Internet regardless of time and place is also increasing. If you think about it — how often do you turn to the Internet in any given day to get what you need — whether it’s directions, information about weather, tunes or to catch up on the news? Well, hold on to your hats, the mobile landscape is set to change significantly and rapidly over the next few years as demand for compelling Internet experiences and greater ease of use of mobile devices continues to grow with a voracious appetite and mobile usage explodes.

Key Factors

“Eye candy” and usability will be the critical success factors in the mobile market — putting the emphasis squarely on demanding more from the user interface. Flexible and open user interface technologies will be the key enablers behind the newest, most compelling user experiences. And what openness delivers is the ability to enable developers to focus on the essential end user experience as well as allow for new kinds of differentiation.

Something to note is that this use of open technologies’ powered development of mobile devices means less investment in other core technologies. For example, open technology use means browser engines and operating systems can be shared — differentiation and value added services can now lie on top of underlying layers. Open interfaces and open source code enable developers to focus on innovation, which improves the user experience — and now the basic question in product development changes from “how” to “what.” To be perfectly clear — openness doesn’t mean that all mobile phones are going to be similar. Real openness, without any forced background services or start buttons, enables differentiated devices and solutions that equally benefit device manufacturers, operators and end users. The more open the platform, the more differentiated the experience will be.

One major challenge in today’s mobile Linux market is fragmentation — especially at the user interface layer. And introducing totally new user interface technologies only goes further to increase that fragmentation. Differentiation in a fragmented market is difficult and requires a great deal of work; and as applications don’t work on many platforms, this prevents a well-functioning application market from forming. The fragmentation has to be reduced and the good news is that it will be — Maemo, Moblin, LiMo and ARM Internet Linux Platform are already using the same Gnome-based architecture. In the user interface layer, increasing use of Web technologies will reduce fragmentation. 2009 is already shaping up to be an interesting year in terms of how the fragmentation issue will be addressed.

Innovation Through Openness

Today, we see openness has climbed its way up into the middleware layer. In the near future, we expect to see openness spreading to the application layer. Pushing openness upward in the software stack will accelerate innovation. Open API interfaces toward reusable cross platform application components will inspire totally new kinds of mobile services and applications. A simple high-level SDK of the iPhone has already fostered the innovation process to produce thousands of new applications. The day we have open interfaces towards device resources such as location information and connectivity — the mobile market will never be the same.

For the last several years the mobile industry has been hunting the killer application. But don’t look for a single killer application; instead there will be several thousands of killer applications created through open innovation. This will cause fragmentation in the end user market — but from an end user point of view — this kind of fragmentation is good, it means freedom of choice. In order to get there — the fragmentation in the mobile software stack needs to be reduced as noted previously. Freedom and openness require responsibility toward the end users. Creating a good user experience on open mobile devices requires extremely focused planning and strong expertise throughout the whole stack, all the way from kernel to the user experience design.

The market doesn’t change in a day but being closed-minded about openness just doesn’t make sense. In order to ensure a successful future for mobile Linux, it is essential that the different parties play together. The corporate world and the open source world shouldn’t argue about the aspects of openness, in the end, they both have the same interests: to increase openness and innovation, reuse software and avoid reinventing the wheel yet again and again. The time is ripe to define how openness can be further increased to ensure the success of the entire mobile Linux market.

Tomi Rauste is president of Movial Creative Technologies. Sampo Nurmentaus is a director with Movial.

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