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Mobile Linux Group Seen As Defensive Move

A group of mobile-phone providers is looking to band together on Linux to try to counter Microsoft's gains in the market, one analyst says.
Microsoft Corp.'s momentum in the handset market during the last six to 12 months has one analyst suggesting that Thursday's announcement from a group of top mobile carrier and handset makers is a strategy to address recent market-share gains.

Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile Communications, Samsung Electronics and Vodafone plan to pool resources to collaborate on a Linux operating system for mobile phones that would ship by the end of 2007.

The group of handset makers and operators also will form an independent foundation to focus on joint development and marketing of an API specification, architecture, supporting source code-based reference implementation components and tools.

Analysts see the move as a low-risk strategy to help spur new-product development for smarter phones running on open-source platforms, rather than proprietary. "Microsoft is gaining momentum in the handset market, and I would suspect the decision by the group to collaborate is directly reflected at those gains," said Mark Kirstein, vice president of multimedia at research firm iSuppli Corp.

Today, Linux OS operates in a small proportion of the mobile handsets, while Symbian and Microsoft dominate the space. Kirstein expects the open-source Linux OS to have a major impact on the market, estimating that 35.2 million mobile devices running Linux OS will end up in subscribers' hands by the end of 2007, up from 12.6 million this year.

Compare that with 24.3 million smart phones and pocket PCs in 2007 that run Windows OS, up from 15.1 million this year; and 163.2 million and 106 million, respectively, running Symbian OS, he said.

The move toward Linux could drive down costs for consumers who purchase products, as well as the handset manufacturers that build them. It will spur competition and innovation for new products. "Linux would add flexibility when trying to tailor the OS to a specific handset manufacturer."

Christy Wyatt, vice president of ecosystem and market developments at Motorola Mobile Devices, said working together should increase collaboration among third-party developers working to deliver more choices for multimedia features, such as music, games and video.

Handset makers, such as Motorola, are attracted to Linux because no one owns the code. "We don't need to license the platform from another company," Wyatt said. "But don't get me wrong. Motorola's products also support other platforms, such as Microsoft and Symbian."

Taking into consideration Motorola's product roadmap, the company decided Linux is the strategic platform that required additional investment, Wyatt said. The handset maker has shipped about 5 million units that operate on Linux, mostly in China, in the past few years.

Susan Kalla, telecom media analyst at Caris & Co., estimates less than 1 percent of the 1 billion phones forecast to sell globally this year will run on Linux. "The market is moving toward using Windows OS and Symbian to support high-end phones," she said. "Linux would support low end phones that might include music or Wi-Fi features. These could be phones from companies like Apple and Google."