Fragmentation threatens mobile Linux momentum

Stalled developments by mobile phone groups may be creating an interopability headache

Despite signs that mobile Linux is gaining momentum -- such as the launch of Motorola's Linux-based Razr2 -- and heated competition, confusion about goals and slow-moving consortiums may be hindering growth.

These developments are an indication of how much may be at stake. Between 2006 and 2012, cumulative Linux mobile device shipments are expected to reach 331 million, said Stuart Carlaw, an analyst with ABI Research. Such predictions are drawing interest to the segment from handset manufacturers, software developers and carriers.

The LiMo Foundation, the Linux Phone Standards Forum (LiPS) and the Open Source Development Labs' Mobile Linux Initiative are among the new groups formed over the past couple of years to try to reduce the fragmentation in the mobile Linux market and to encourage interoperability. But at least one mobile Linux vendor is critical of their progress.

"They're still trying to figure out where to hold meetings," said Jim Ready, CTO and founder of MontaVista, of the activities of some of the groups.

Progress at organizations like LiMo has been extremely slow, agreed Dan Cauchy, director of product marketing at MontaVista. "I'm concerned about what that will mean to the actual marketplace because each member company is building phones regardless," he said. Phone makers and software developers don't want to wait for the groups to decide on platforms and standards so they continue to make products that may not ultimately conform to the parameters set by the groups or interoperate, he said.

Mobile phones are already plagued with interoperability issues that make it difficult for applications to run properly on all handsets. This problem hurts users interested in applications that are incompatible with their handsets. Also affected are software developers who have to make multiple versions of the same application for different handsets.

Some operators, including Vodafone Group, have said they will soon require that all of their handsets run only two or three specific operating systems as a way to ensure that applications will work across all phones. The operators don't want to introduce Linux devices into their lineup of phones if they only exacerbate the interoperability problem.

While MontaVista is active in many of the groups, it is also continuing to work closely with handset makers to meet their needs. According to Cauchy, 90 percent of mobile Linux devices--including Motorola's Razr2--are running MontaVista Linux.

Confusion about goals in the industry could also be dragging down progress. "It's clear that the leading operators are telling the industry to consolidate," said Jason Whitmire, general manager of mobile solutions for Wind River, a Linux software developer with products for mobile phone vendors. "They expect to use only one OS stack or maybe two, so they have asked the industry to join together and do something." By his count, there are 22 different flavors of mobile Linux.

But MontaVista has a different perspective. "Some of these consortiums are under the impression that they'll provide one stack to satisfy the world and I think carriers are saying, 'I don't think so'," said Cauchy.

Choice is one of the main reasons driving the mobile Linux industry. In an ironic twist, Symbian, the mobile phone operating system, was first created by a group of mobile phone makers that feared that Microsoft, which had just entered the mobile market, might dominate like it did in the PC industry. But more recently, Symbian has begun to dominate the smart phone market enough that mobile operators wanted to be sure they had another choice, Carlaw said. Mobile Linux is an attempt to ensure that Microsoft and Symbian aren't the only options, he said.

"The whole point is to have choice and alternatives," said Ready. "It's because of this paranoia about having one supplier... that's why these consortiums show up."

Too much choice, however, has been causing problems. At a mobile Linux conference in Madrid this week, fragmentation was a key concern particularly among smaller operators, Whitmire said. Without consolidation, they see costs related to supporting mobile Linux soaring, he said.

Wind River, MontaVista and others have one less potential competitor to worry about. During a keynote presentation at the Madrid conference, Red Hat said it has no intention of entering the embedded device Linux market.

Fragmentation is an issue in mobile Linux, but some advancements are happening, Carlaw said. He's seen real progress in terms of different layers of the stack working together. It's been more difficult to improve on "horizontal" fragmentation. But that's starting to get better too, he said. For example, the LiPS Forum recently began working with the Open Mobile Alliance to improve interoperability both between mobile Linux devices and between Linux and non-Linux phones.

It's natural to have this amount of fragmentation at this stage of the market development and companies appear to have the incentive to continue to work it out, he said. "Carriers are still saying they're looking at Linux as a long-term prospect," he said.