Linux Sees ‘Astronomic’ Growth in Mobile Devices

Mobile devices are increasingly working their way into our everyday lives, and market research suggests that the operating systems driving these devices are often Linux-based.

Technology research firm ABI Research forecasts that Linux will be the fastest growing smartphone operating system over the next five years.

According to the ABI study, Linux as a smartphone operating system is to experience a compound annual growth rate in excess of 75 percent by 2012.

Astronomic Growth

“We were very aware that the growth in mobile for Linux was huge, but we didn’t know it was so astronomic,” Amanda McPherson, marketing director for the Linux Foundation, told LinuxInsider. “These are very encouraging numbers.”

The Linux Foundation is a global consortium supported by companies and developers. Founded this year as a merger of the Open Source Development Labs and Free Standards Group, the Foundation sponsors the work of Linux creator Linus Torvalds, furthers Linux standardization, and manages the Linux trademark.

Linux Value Stack

Why Linux has drawn significant support from the community of handset manufacturers can be explained on several fronts, McPherson said.

Technology architecture is one reason. “Its component architecture makes it highly customizable for different environments,” McPherson said. “People can easily use what they need. They need not be forced to keep a lot of superfluous technology that would hinder mobile devices.”

Also driving mobile Linux forward is momentum. Linux-based mobile computing has a serious ecosystem. With open source development’s unique dynamics, various participants build value, one on top of the other, McPherson said.

Mobile Linux Momentum

Norway-based Trolltech is one business that saw the potential for Linux early on. Trolltech provides mobile computing software development projects with toolkits and software stacks.

“Linux only provides the naked OS, and the manufacturer needs to build the user interface, telephone and application platform on top of Linux,” Chuck Piercey, Trolltech vice president of product management, told LinuxInsider.

Businesses use Trolltech’s offerings commercially and a larger community uses its products for free software development. Trolltech’s Qtopia is an open Linux platform with almost 10 million shipped units.

Quick Results

“Because source code is available for anyone’s reuse and modification, open source ecosystems learn and evolve more quickly than closed ecosystems,” Piercey said. “Experiments are made, and they succeed or fail.”

Developers are attracted to working with operating systems that are building traction in the marketplace.

“They want to choose an operating system that has a thriving ecosystem behind it, that has companies, developers, tools all building to continually improve it,” McPherson said.

Opportunity Knocks

The time is ripe for developers to get involved, McPherson said.

“You have virtually all the major smartphone vendors choosing Linux as their operating system. A lot of opportunity comes with that for individual developers and vendors,” McPherson said. “I’ve been telling my developer friends to get into this business for some time.”

Mobile Linux Groups

This year, Linux industry groups and consortia to guide the ecosystem are showing strength. The LiMo Foundation issued a statement in August announcing a surge in membership.

LiMo is an industry group working toward a competitive Linux platform for mobile devices. Big-name founder members include Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung. The Foundation is open to chipset manufacturers, independent software vendors (ISVs), integrators and third-party developers.

Another group in the Linux mobile ecosystem is the LiPS Forum, or Linux Phone Standards Forum. LiPS was founded in 2005 to speed the adoption of Linux in fixed, mobile and converged devices. Member categories range from service providers to equipment manufacturers to software vendors.

The LiPS consortium of industry players is focused on standardizing Linux-based services and application programming interfaces (APIs).

Importance of Standards

Standards and tools will be important for continued progress, McPherson said.

“I do think we need to make sure proper developer support exists in the form of standards and tools. That will help continue to build this market,” she said.

Trolltech’s Piercey, meanwhile, predicts a galaxy of Linux-based opportunities beyond mobile phones.

“We have thought for many years that Linux would eventually become the dominant operating system for mobile phones, so we are not at all surprised to see these numbers,” Piercey said. “Now that Motorola says they want to move up to 60 percent of their phones to Linux, we expect Linux will become mainstream on a variety of devices and in a variety of form factors, not simply the mobile phone.”

In Piercey’s vision, features that are now showing up in smartphones will migrate into other information appliances in the coming years. “It will be a veritable explosion of innovation,” he said.

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