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Nokia: Embedded Linux Not Mature

Cell phone manufacturer planning no Linux phones and believes the OS needs some work.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia this week, Nokia’s vice president and head of corporate strategy, Jarkko Sairanen, said that the cell phone manufacturer had no immediate plans to develop a phone based on Linux, citing a lack of maturity, including a lack of developer interest and problems with memory management.

Huh. Maybe Sairanen should alert his counterpart at Motorola, the world’s No. 2 cellphone manufacturer about the issues. Motorola quickly sold one million units of their Linux-based “Ming” phone this year in the quarter following the product’s April launch in China.

While embedded Linux’s marketshare in telecom heavily trails both Symbian and Windows Mobile, Mr. Sairanen’s comments most likely speak more of Nokia’s comfort level with Linux than the maturity of open source embedded systems.

However, in Mr. Sairanen’s defense, if you look around the cellular communications market, you get some extremely mixed messages about embedded Linux. For instance, Red Hat’s latest quarterly earnings statement noted that its “… embedded product is no longer significant in terms of revenue, no longer separately managed, and no longer considered a business unit.” Red Hat’s opinion isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.

But even such naysaying could be more an indication of Red Hat’s business strategy than a lack of market opportunity. That said, Novell fairs no better with embedded systems. The company considered an embedded product back in 2003-2004 that never really turned up.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions of Red Hat and Novell, some companies are achieving success in the embedded Linux space. Consider Wind River and MontaVista Software, for example.

Moreover, the fact is that Linux in embedded telecommunications does provide real value. Look no further than Motorola to find it. The company has taken significant market share from competitors in the last year with a combination of both low- and high-end devices. Obviously, Linux and open source are a good match for low-end phones, since licensing costs are inherently lower. Yet the technology is also proving itself at the high-end; the Rokr E2 music phone, it too available in China, runs on Linux.

For a number of companies right now, the “embedded” market is around “real-time” applications — financial transactions, aircraft radar, and medical diagnostics — that require a tens of milliseconds response time from the operating system. Wind River and MontaVista both have products in this space, while Novell plans to release a real-time version of their SUSE Enterprise Linux product later this month.

So, while Nokia isn’t completely sold on embedded Linux yet, I think there’s more going on in this space than Mr. Sairanen’s comments would indicate. And ultimately it’s an opportunity that Nokia could very well miss.

Bryan Richard is the editorial director of Linux Magazine.

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