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Mobile Phones and Linux

Yes, Linux is now powering a number of brand name mobile phones, but there’s a great deal yet to do to transform Linux into a credible alternative to proprietary mobile operating systems. Here’s a look at the challenges ahead-- and a dark horse entering the mobile race this month.

Almost immediately, the mobile phone will become the primary vehicle for content consumption. Communication, entertainment, and information in the form of mobile television, push email, and software radio, among others, will be delivered as a software service. In many instances, these services are already available to the public.

Computing’s old friend, Moore’s Law, is one of the trends that has enabled the mobile phone to become the capable device that it is. In the last year alone, RAM has increased from 64 MB to 128 MB in popular high-end devices, while processor speeds have gone from 208 to 312 MHz in those same models.

Additionally, mobile network operators are now focusing on growing revenue from new services. Because the market for traditional voice services is now saturated, future revenues must come from selling existing customers new kinds of services. New services mean new and increasingly complex software. Talk about a revolution.

In general, the mobile telephone is a classic embedded device. In a phone, a small, highly tuned real-time executive, often proprietary to the handset vendor, is augmented with a small number of special purpose applications, and is then baked as a whole into the device.

Practically speaking, there is no opportunity to modify or add software once the handset ships. Indeed, the whole software package can be extraordinarily brittle, requiring significant time and expense to change or add features to applications, introduce new applications to the mix, or port the software to a new device or platform architecture. Even Java ME– which facilitates secure software downloads and is virtually ubiquitous in mobile phones– requires an underlying operating system and is just another expensive application to port to a handset.

Clearly, the” one phone, one solution” model is archaic and cannot keep pace with consumer demand for novel and emerging capabilities. Hence, there is an obvious and growing need to field mobile phones with a modern operating system, one capable of fully preemptive multitasking, a robust process model, virtual memory, and inter-application communication.

Platform infrastructure support, such as dynamically-loaded and- shared libraries and loadable device drivers, would bring modern software development techniques and process to handset platform development. Additionally, true, mature, and full-featured APIs would streamline the development of services and provide for independent development of shared features, including user interface frameworks, common I/O and device abstractions, and essential system services.

Finally and critically, a fully-featured, modern operating system is more easily hardened. With tens of millions of phones in active use, and more sophisticated phones and applications on the way, security remains a considerable and onerous concern.

Selling Symbian

If, four years ago, you asked for a complete platform based on a fully-featured operating system, two names would have leapt to mind: Symbian and Microsoft. At the time, Palm OS had limited features and and was relegated to PDAs, and no Linux-based products were available. Moreover, only a small number of devices were powerful enough to host such a capable software stack.

Since then, Symbian has come to dominate the market (though its influence may be waning). In the beginning of 2005, the Gartner Group, a market research firm, put Symbian at 76.3 percent of the smartphone market, Linux at 13.7 percent, Palm at 4.6 percent, Microsoft at 4.5 percent, and Research in Motion (RIM, makers of the Blackberry) at 1 percent. By the end of 2005, The Diffusion Group, another research firm, reported Symbian at 51 percent, Linux at 23 percent, and Windows CE at 17 percent. In roughly a year, a substantial number of more muscular phones were sold, reflecting strong demand for smarter devices, with Linux and Windows CE gaining at the expense of Symbian. (For more information about Symbian, see the short sidebar” Shares of Symbian.”)

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