Motorola turns to Linux for phones

Motorola is developing all its advanced phone features on Linux.

Motorola is developing all its advanced phone features on Linux first, leading a charge that will accelerate with this week's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo.

Although it will continue to make phones with Microsoft Windows Mobile and Symbian Symbian OS as demanded by particular markets, the world's second-largest mobile handset maker looks to the open source platform for its future device direction, said Mark VandenBrink, senior director and lead architect in Motorola's Mobile Devices Software unit.

Motorola started developing Linux-based phones in 2000 for sale in China, where the market was growing fast and the government looked favorably on Linux, VandenBrink said in an interview Monday on the sidelines of LinuxWorld. The show runs from Monday through Thursday in San Francisco. Motorola since has expanded its use of the OS beyond China, he said.

Linux is shaping up as an alternative to Symbian, Windows Mobile and other mobile device platforms, though its share of the market is still small in most countries. Fragmentation plagues mobile Linux and will get worse this week as yet more implementations emerge at the show, said Avi Greengart of Current Analysis. But backers are moving to stop that trend: On Monday, Open Source Development Labs Inc. (OSDL) and the Linux Phone Standards (LIPS) Forum announced a formal deal to coordinate their work.

Linux lets Motorola piggyback on advances by a large force of developers working on other types of hardware, and it means the handset maker doesn't have to wait for an OS vendor such as Microsoft to release a new feature, VandenBrink said. That makes a difference in the cell phone business, where Motorola has to deliver products at the right times in many different markets throughout the year, VandenBrink said. Its Linux push on phones also fits into an overall strategy for many kinds of communication and entertainment products, he said. For example, most of Motorola's TV set-top boxes run on Linux.

There's another big reason why Motorola is embracing Linux, according to Greengart.

"Mobile Linux is clearly their play against Nokia," the world's largest handset maker and the biggest backer of Symbian, he said.

Still, the platform is poised to grow quickly out of its Asian base in the coming months, with several new handsets hitting the market in the U.S. and elsewhere, Greengart said. Carriers welcome it because they want to put their own stamp on the phones they sell, he said. An existing OS such as Windows Mobile may rein them in.

"They don't want anyone else to dictate to them what the user interface should look like," Greengart said.

Meanwhile, having five or more mobile Linux implementations in play in the industry may drain some of the platform's potential. All are based on the Linux kernel but go off in different directions from there, he said.

As for the magic of the open-source development community, size still matters, he added.

"Unless you have some kind of volume shipments, and you actually have open source, you're going to have a tough time convincing third-party developers to support your platform," Greengart said.

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