January 30, 2007

New LiMo Foundation looking to commoditize mobile Linux

Author: Tina Gasperson

Last week, Motorola and five other cell phone manufacturers announced the official launch of the LiMo Foundation, a "global mobile Linux initiative." The foundation will work off mobile Linux in a private collaborative development environment that has its roots in open source, but isn't quite.

Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vodafone are each throwing $800,000 into the not-for-profit foundation, whose stated purpose is to create a Linux-based "ecosystem" and foster private collaboration on commodity elements of mobile platform and application development.

According to Wyatt, since mobile customers don't know or care what operating system their phone runs on, and since all of them expect features like better memory management, if the foundation can collaborate on these "commodity" features, that leaves more time, money, and energy for individual companies to focus on feature-rich applications that will help them differentiate from their competitors -- inside or outside the LiMo Foundation.

"The focus is really to create a new development model," says Christy Wyatt, vice president of ecosystems and market development for Motorola. "Each one of us is a pretty successful business, coming up with a single reference implementation that we're all collaborating on. This is important because it gives us a considerable mobile Linux platform we can build an ecosystem around."

But the ecosystem isn't entirely open. "We looked at best practices in open source, and in wireless telecom there are a lot of intricacies around patents and licenses," Wyatt says. "Pure open source didn't work, although core pieces of the platform are already GPL. Our contributing members build on that. Other member companies take a license and can incorporate it into their commercial products. We're contributing technology to the reference platform and licensing it back to incorporate as a whole into this mobile platform."

In the LiMo Foundation, Motorola and other foundation members seem to have found a powerful way to compete against rival Nokia. Not only that, but the foundation promises to vastly increase the number of cell phones based on Linux, something that rival mobile operating system developer Symbian has said will take "a lot of work."

David A. Wheeler, author of several works, including Make Your Open Source Software GPL-Compatible. Or Else., says the collaboration has the potential for "great benefit. It looks very similar to the way that Unix was adopted, in that a whole bunch of companies have figured out that it costs a lot of money if they do it all themselves."

Wyatt seems to agree with Wheeler. "There needs to be a stable and robust platform," she says. "We can't get there if our research and development dollars are spread thin. How do we drive innovation and drive costs down? When we looked at all the platform choices, we decided we can't get there on a commercial platform."

Motorola, once a stakeholder in the Symbian Mobile OS, last year sold its interest to Nokia. Today, only one Motorola phone, the A1000, is still based on Symbian, while Nokia has more than 30. Motorola's move to Linux could be interpreted as a move to gain market share from Nokia, which in 2004 had sales equal to more than double Motorola's for the same year, and more than Motorola and Samsung combined, according to research by IC Insights cited in an EETimes.com article.

Still, Wyatt says the LiMo Foundation is less a response than it is a perspective. "We can create a bigger market opportunity for the best, brightest, and most innovative developers in mobile Linux. We believe in open ecosystems."

Wheeler thinks the motivation may be more of a desire on Motorola's part to escape the control of Symbian's proprietary licensing restrictions. "A lot of companies are saying, 'we want to control our own destiny,' so from their vantage point, it makes great sense." He also says that the Foundation may be a response in part to Apple's recent iPhone announcement. "Apple is preventing third-party applications [for iPhone], except through them," Wheeler says. "Apple makes a good product, but the open product wins every time." He says if the Foundation produces phones that will compete with iPhone, "I suspect Apple's going to change its policy."

The LiMo Foundation's goal for its first year of existence is to round up more members, says Wyatt, a plan that's not surprising considering the $4.8 million budget members are expected to cover. Foundation documents optimistically project that in its second year of operation, founding members will only have to fork out $400,000 each, since more members means less out-of-pocket expense for existing participants. "We've had a lot of interest from different companies." However, she says Motorola doesn't see a future with Monta Vista or Trolltech, two companies familiar in mobile Linux circles. "We do not have a relationship with either of them," Wyatt says, but she did say she hopes to engage the former Open Source Development Labs' Mobile Linux Initiative.

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