TECH BLOG

Mobile Linux: A Crowd Is Starting to Form

The world of open source mobile platforms is starting to get a little crowded.

Over the past couple of days, rumors began flying that Dell is getting into the game with a phone based on Google’s Android platform. Dell denies it, but the amount of attention that is being paid to this segment of the market is notable.

Also recently, Nokia purchased Trolltech, which develops open source user interfaces, and Azingo has launched its own platform that’s a direct competitor to Android. Some hardware makers — Philips spinoff NXP Semiconductors and Purple Labs — have announced a low-cost Linux-based phone.

I see a lot of predictions that say Linux is going to be one of the top three operating systems for mobile devices in coming years — and a lot that say that mobile devices are going to make up an ever-larger portion of our information technology usage in the near future.

The Players

Microsoft has its Windows Mobile, a start-to-finish platform that’s already on the market.

However, it’s a Microsoft product. And in order to develop third-party apps for Microsoft products, you’ve got to do things Microsoft’s way.

Symbian is the current dominant mobile OS, and it’s owned by Nokia.

Nokia, you recall, bought Trolltech, which created Qt, a major element in the KDE open source user interface. A version of this, Qtopia, runs mobile phones including the Greenphone, one of the first Linux-based phones to hit the market.

Hybrid Theory

It would make sense to think that Nokia probably isn’t going to follow parallel paths with Symbian and Qtopia, but rather mash them together and use the best elements of each to create a hybrid operating system/user interface.

Given Nokia’s advanced state of readiness in smartphones (such as the N95) and non-phone wireless devices (such as the N810), it figures to push the entire segment forward once it figures out how to marry those elements.

There’s a lot more to all of this than just an operating system. What Linux has that the others don’t — Windows Mobile, in particular — is openness. Anyone who knows what they’re doing can download the SDK and build an application.

Restless Natives

We’re already starting to see the limitations of Android. Developers are complaining about its lack of support for Bluetooth and WiFi, for example.

That support is said to be coming, but it illustrates a bottleneck in the process and highlights the fact that despite its open nature, Android is still dependent to some degree on Google and the other members of the OHA. Not exactly a free-for-all.

It’s good news, then, that so many hardware makers and software developers are lining up to build products for mobile Linux.

Let the shakeout begin. This is how we do it in the open source world — we all crowd around a good idea, contribute our knowledge and visions, and we collaborate until we find a standard that most people can agree upon.

The Yield

If the process doesn’t yield a single absolute standard, we at least get interoperability. The crowd eventually starts moving in more or less the same direction, and the loose ends get tied up.

It’s an untidy process, inefficient and nasty, but it gets the job done and no one can complain about the end result because everyone from the very beginning has had an equal chance to contribute.

I look forward to seeing the results, if not necessarily the sausage-making process.

Click here to e-mail Jason Z. Cohen.

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