A new consortium to develop a mobile Linux faces several challenges, including governance and sharing intellectual property rights.
A partnership disclosed last week by some of the leading cellular carriers and equipment makers intends to drive competition and innovation for new wireless devices and applications with a mobile LInux operating system planned for release next year. Mobile Linux will compete with directly with Symbian, the world's leading operating system for smart phones, and Windows. But the group, which includes, Japan's leading cellular carrier NTT DoCoMo, NEC, Motorola, Panasonic Mobile Communications, Samsung Electronics, and Vodafone, has several challenges to overcome first.
The goal of a Linux-based platform for mobile devices is to lower development costs and provide a richer mobile ecosystem of devices and applications. However, Linux phones currently sold on the market are incompatible with each other and there isn't a single third-party application that can work across them all.
A major push to solve that problem is coming from wireless carriers. NTT DoCoMo—the driving force behind the partnership—wants to have choices in the software platforms it offers customers. In fact, more carriers are pushing toward dual sourcing, which refers to acquiring technology from two different vendors and, in this context, making two sets of software available on mobile devices.
Symbian is one of the software platforms carriers seem to have settled on; some 70 million smart phones worldwide have shipped with the operating system. Industry experts say the second platform will be Linux, but not Microsoft—contrary to popular belief.
The new partnership isn't the first effort to develop Linux for mobile systems. NEC and Panasonic have worked together in the past to create Linux-based phones for NTT DoCoMo. Symbian also created a platform for phones sold by the carrier. Many carriers are trying to boil down the number of operating systems they offer on mobile phones to reduce their complexity.
Past Linux consortiums have been slow to deliver on their promise, Symbian executives say. They cited work by Japanese mobile content provider Access to develop a Linux version of the Palm OS, and Norwegian software company Trolltech tried to do the same for mobile phones.
The new consortium faces several challenges, including governance and sharing intellectual property rights, since many of the consortium's members are direct competitors. And it may take three to five years to actually deliver devices based on Linux. "It's very difficult to create such a software platform. The operating system is only 10% of what's needed in a modern phone and there are hundreds of other components that need to work together well," says Nigel Clifford, Symbian's CEO.
In order for mobile Linux to be successful, the companies will have to develop a consistent API to create a single platform that different applications can run on. NTT DoCoMo and the handset makers plan to form an independent foundation to jointly develop API specifications, architecture, supporting source code-based reference implementation components, and tools.
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