Linux on cell phones: the trend is up


Author: Murry Shohat

This summer, in a perfect storm of activity, the cell phone suddenly became a full-fledged wireless computer. Those prime-time TV commercials promoting the iPhone downplay the telephone application to emphasize data-rich Internet media capabilities — email, Web surfing, GPS navigation, music, photos, and video — all on a cell phone. Hard on Apple’s heels, a blitz of new handhelds is beginning to vie for attention, led by Motorola’s US launch of the Linux-based RAZR2 V8, now taking place. Has Linux become a contending competitive platform, pushing open source to the front of the stage in this market?

It appears so. Market research firm ABI Research, in a late August press announcement entitled “Linux to Be the Fastest-Growing Smartphone OS over the Next 5 Years,” predicted a compound annual growth rate “in excess of 75%.” By 2012, this growth rate means that Linux will “account for nearly 31% of all smart devices in the market … representing more than 331 million cumulative shipments over the same period.” Research Director Stuart Carlaw said, “Serious initiatives from the likes of Intel and Access are gathering pace and momentum, whilst the carrier community continues to identify Linux as one of the few operating systems that it intends to support in its long-term plans.”

The LiMo (Linux Mobile) trade association says in a press release that “worldwide industry experts predict that there are currently two billion mobile subscribers who are consuming one trillion minutes of service and purchasing more than one billion mobile phones annually. Industry analysts project the mobile software and services market to exceed $6B by 2009, with open platforms as the fastest growing sector of the market.”

In its Worldwide Mobile Phone 2007-2011 Forecast and Analysis, IDC observed that handset shipments surpassed the one billion mark last year. “The growth in mobile phone shipments will be powered by new users in emerging markets, allowing the market to reach the next billion users,” says Chris Hazelton, senior analyst in IDC’s Mobile Device Technology and Trends serive. “However, mature markets will also experience growth from users upgrading to mobile phones that offer advances in mobile Internet, navigation, rich messaging, and video.”

The IDC forecast sets the global five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) at 6.9%, leading to shipment of 1.4 billion handsets by 2011. With Linux CAGR in this market forecasted at 75%, gains have to be at the expense of current OS leaders. ABI’s Carlaw says, “Linux is benefiting from growing support in the handset OEM community, most notably Motorola, but also Nokia with less traditional types of devices aimed at mobile broadband applications.”

Most of those billions of mobile customers don’t care which operating system runs their phone. What’s really important is the functionality. In addition to voice service, they want video, music, photos, GPS, and camera, plus the Energizer bunny of killer apps: easy email on a handheld. Going forward, companies want even more functionality in two key areas — corporate applications such as collaboration and calendaring; and genuine security so that a data tunnel established between a wireless handheld and the firm’s data does not create a potentially malicious entry door.

David Wood, executive vice president of research at Linux competitor Symbian, aptly says on the company’s Web site, “The software that you can obtain from the primary Linux download site,, is less than 10% of what you need to create a phone. The remaining 90+% of software significantly alters the characterisation of the phone.” That 90% is either in the hands of proprietary developers like Symbian and Microsoft or open source stack developers like MontaVista and Access. Leading cell phone vendors such as Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, and LG continue to partner with the proprietary developers and stack vendors. But nonprofit trade associations like LIPS and LiMo — funded by open-source-minded corporate partners — suggests that the difficulties of building the 90% portion will be substantially eased by the software platforms that are undergoing collaborative work. LiMo’s platform has a tenative phased development schedule that completes in 2009. LIPS, on the other hand, promises release 1.0 by year’s end and has published a roadmap through 2008.

In the cell phone market, consumers will pay for content, and corporations need to deliver secure content to applications in the palm of employees’ hands. These trends suggest products that are simultaneously more functional and less expensive than a Treo or BlackBerry and more secure than an iPhone. MontaVista Software claims to have deployed Mobilinux on more than 35 million mobile devices worldwide. CEO Tom Kelley says, “Linux is growing rapidly on mobile devices because of its solid reliability, its great flexibility, and because it accelerates the development cycle.” Vendors using or contemplating the use of Linux for mobile devices unanimously point to the operating system’s footprint, memory usage, and fast growing ecosystem of developers producing software for graphics, multimedia, connectivity, and security.

This is a market where, if you can change the rules, maybe you can win the game. Apple’s iPhone serve came up an ace for the consumer, though not for business, inasmuch as the iPhone lacks the necessary security features to keep CIOs happy. Even before iPhone’s launch, analysts were calling it a “nightmare for security teams.”

Linux, however, is suited to consumer products because the core or kernel is free and is exceptionally well maintained as a secure operating system under the auspices of groups like The Linux Foundation. Because the open source development environment yields unfettered access to the protocol stack, corporations can devise ways to protect all of those bi-directional bytes flying across the network.

How long will the perfect storm continue? Although Apple may be credited with ratcheting up the activity level with the iPhone, most of the developments on the Linux front have been simmering for a long time. For example, Motorola began launching Linux-based cell phones and smart phones in Asian and European markets several years ago. Consortia like LIPS and LiMo also trace back to around 2000. Consumers are likely to encounter many new products through the normal channels — the competing carriers like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and others. It’s an uphill swim for Linux, of course, given the sheer numbers. However, Linux is poised to achieve about a third of the mobile market by 2012, as predicted by ABI Research. And this bodes well for the use of Linux throughout the consumer markets.


  • Handheld Devices