Uphill Road for Linux Cell Phones

Telecommunications industry analysts have been evangelizing the arrival of cell phones running on the Linux operating system for the last few years. The sermonizing has recently reached a fevered pitch in some quarters.

The message, they say, is undeniable — the Linux operating system is on its way as a full-powered alternative to the Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems that currently power the majority of cell phones sold in Europe and the U.S.

The Asian marketplace, driven largely by support from the Chinese telecom industry, has become a proving ground for a few types of Linux-based phones.

Large handset-makers, including Motorola, have developed a variety of models for Asian consumers. The company has shipped about five million handsets that use Linux, mostly in Asia, according to research firm Gartner.

In Asia, two very popular Motorola phones running Linux are the ROKR E2 music phone and the A1200. The latter, called the Ming in China, is the top-selling PDA phone in that country.

“Linux-based devices are just entering Europe and the U.S. now. The Moto A1200, the most popular phone in China, is now available at CompUSA in California,” Adam Lawson, product director for mobile embedded solutions at Trolltech, told LinuxInsider. “To date, the Linux revolution has been confined to the Asian markets, with focus on Japan and China. But we are seeing exciting developments and Linux is expected to take off in Europe and the U.S. shortly.”

The Linux Push

The Diffusion Group predicts that Linux will surpass Symbian OS market share in smartphones by 2010, with 26.6 percent of the worldwide market, according to David Rizk, information specialist for the Open Source Development Labs. Symbian’s own analysis, he said, reports that Linux already powers nearly 40 percent of smartphones in Japan and almost 50 percent of smartphones in China.

“Mobile devices represent a huge growth opportunity for Linux, especially in Asia,” said Rizk.

“People like the idea of having a Linux alternative, because Linux is cheaper and easier to use and is more customizable,” noted Pauline Alker, president and CEO of a la Mobile. “Linux is about to happen.”

A la Mobile has developed a Linux-based platform for mobile phones. The company, formed in 2005, has signed a partnership with Gupp Technologies, which will introduce a demonstration product at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, said Alker.

Gupp’s session initiation protocol (SIP)-based WiFi/GSM dual-mode Linux smartphone focuses on both voice and data over WiFi.

“We expect to see products in 2007 using Linux. This will be the year for a Linux breakthrough,” said Alker.

Working Out Problems

U.S. consumers may have a considerable wait for Linux cell phones. Product features could be lacking at first, and U.S. phone carriers do not appear to be ready to offer Linux handheld devices.

There is no question that Linux can be put on handsets, according to John Doyle, vice president of business development for Communigate. The problem lies in the infrastructure outside Asian markets, he said. The mobile handheld space is getting very mature. For instance, connection rates are often ten times faster in Asia than in the U.S.

“Carriers have to look at the kind of services to offer that would produce revenue. We are starting to see new technologies like Ajax and very rich color screens and more complex phones,” he said.

Development Issues

Criticism of Linux-based cell phones is off-base, in Alker’s view. The proprietary limitations imposed by Windows Mobile and Symbian systems are placing boundaries that Linux-based phones will have, she said.

For instance, Windows Mobile and Symbian operating systems are designed for high-end phones that are difficult to use. Often their features and capabilities are mismatched. Much of what they offer consumers are overkill, she said.

To be successful, Linux-based phones have to overcome three barriers. One is the need for a new standard in the Linux kernel. Due to the various different Linux distributions, what exists in current Linux phones is proprietary software.

A second obstacle is that the the handset maker has to build the device’s software from scratch, consuming excessive development time. To solve this, a dedicated Linux OS company has to create one standard for all handsets to use.

The third barrier to overcome with Linux is having a single place to get the OS and software components without worrying about license issues.

Revenue Stream

There will only be a fringe market for Linux for the next few years, according to Doyle. Development progress aside, he sees a lack of recurring revenue for mobile service providers generated by Linux phones.

The steady source of cash for cell phone service companies is not limited to monthly service contracts. The real revenue comes from pushing games, ring tones and video that fit into rich players. “These don’t play well in Linux,” said Doyle.

“It’s [cell phone sales] all about games, MP3 and morphing all into one device. Linux is out 18 months at least with development before coming to market,” Doyle added. “There is not much interest yet in Linux.”

Doyle sees Linux as a fine solution for cheap handsets in Asia that include only basic features. However, content that requires Flash players are not ideal for a Linux environment.

“In [the] U.S., people are buying expensive handsets that sell for US$400 and $500 even though they pay less with service contracts. The carriers are still paying [top dollar] for them. I don’t see Linux in the picture yet.”

Cost Factors

Handset makers will have to control their costs and power-consumption issues if they are going to make Linux work in feature phones, according to Trolltech’s Lawson. Currently, only smartphones are running Linux, he said.

“The price point for phones that have enough processing power and memory to run a real operating system like Linux is still too high for feature phones,” Lawson said. “But Linux is approaching the feature phone market where the bill Of materials cost is typically around the $75 mark.”

It will probably take another year or so for Linux to penetrate the feature phone market, he estimated, adding that the feature phone market is where companies yield the really big volumes.

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