February 6, 2006

Linux-based Motorola cell phones frustrate third-party developers

Author: Nathan Willis

Motorola first announced its intention to migrate its mobile "smart" phones to embedded Linux in 2003. The first such phone to reach the market was the A760 in the fourth quarter of that year. Today there are a dozen or so models (differing product numbers in different markets and minor hardware variations lead to different counts), but there are still no significant ecosystems for third-party applications or developers. Is Motorola's switch to Linux a hit for the company but a miss for end users?

This is not to say that there is no development happening on these phones. There is a fairly active community of interested Linux hackers at MotorolaFans.com, and Harald Welte of GPL-violations.org fame has started an OpenEZX project in hopes of developing a completely free alternative environment for the phones. But Motorola seems to be putting up roadblocks rather than encouraging programmers to develop for the platform.

The kernel

Take the kernel source, for example. Motorola partners with embedded Linux vendor MontaVista to produce the phones, and the popular A780 and E680 phones appear to use a Linux 2.4.20 kernel and standard libraries. But one developer at MotorolaFans.com recounted a convoluted process when he requested the source code for his E680, which Motorola is required to supply by the GPL. Multiple emails were required over two months, Motorola would only supply the code on a CD not by electronic transfer, and when the CD arrived, Motorola had declared its value at $200, forcing the developer to go to Customs and pay import duties in order to receive it.

He eventually got the source code, of course, leading to some interesting discoveries and a host of potential optimizations for size and memory usage -- at which Motorola should be pleased. Welte's OpenEZX project is attempting to build a 2.6 series kernel for the devices; others have compiled kernels with additional filesystem support or attempts to add drivers for additional hardware via Secure Digital card.

The source for the E680 and the A760 are now available on SourceForge, and instructions for getting into the phones can be found through MotorolaFans.com's forum. But even though you can now get a bash prompt and certain command-line programs to run, what most users want to see are new applications that run on their phones in the regular graphical environment.

The applications

Linuxdevices.com reports Motorola executive Mark VandenBrink has said that the company is not interested creating native applications for the phones, due to concerns of cellular providers, and wants developers to stick to the included Java virtual machine.

Contrast this with Symbian, who provides free documentation and software development kits for all of its mobile phone platforms, encouraging third-party developers. Microsoft does the same for Windows Mobile.

In user space, Motorola chose Trolltech's Qtopia and Qt/Embedded, but built the phones' major applications on top of an additional layer known as EZX, which has not been made public.

Thus, despite having toolchains from Trolltech and access to the kernel source, developers at MotorolaFans.com have not successfully built their own Qt apps to run on the phones. Some have had success running the OPIE distribution built for PDAs from the phones' removable flash memory cards, but doing so requires shutting down and forfeiting use of the phone as a telephone -- hardly a worthwhile trade-off.

The questions

Presumably Motorola saves money in licensing fees by using Linux on its mobile phones. But three years after the company first heralded the switch, its customers have yet to see any tangible benefits of their own.

Admittedly, the GPL requires Motorola to distribute the source code it uses to those phone customers requesting it, but does not require them to be nice about it, much less helpful. The puzzling thing is why the company doesn't see the benefits to attracting Linux developers to its products.

Recent history has shown that the TiVo, Zaurus, and other consumer products gained additional value by encouraging open source hacking. Moreover, Motorola's direct competitors Symbian and Microsoft have a big lead on value-adding third-party software. There are scores of Web sites devoted solely to helping phone users find, download, and use third-party apps on these platforms.

The big question is, what does Motorola gain by obstructing willing developers from bringing software to their platform?

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