Mapping mobile Linux: from Lego bricks to castles
Mobile Linux is a fascinating topic. As an operating system for mobile handsets, Linux commands responses ranging across dismissal, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and admiration. Mobile Linux is often dismissed as an immature operating system for handsets, being sometimes likened to Lego bricks, i.e. a loose set of components that comes nowhere near a complete product. FUD comes about when companies consider the repercussions of GPL licenses (note: the Linux kernel is licensed under GPL v2) which are sometimes likened to IPR contamination. At the same time, Linux as the basis for handset operating systems must be admired for its market penetration, particularly in Japan and China. For 3Q06 Canalys estimates Linux to be powering close to 40% of the smartphones shipped in China and Japan, second only to Symbian.
However, it should be noted that Linux-based mobile operating systems are far more than Lego bricks today. In fact what is emerging is a clear taxonomy of Linux vendor offerings, which I would separate in five types, ranging from support packages, to complete handset products.
A) Linux support packages (LSPs): these consist of the Linux kernel, hardware drivers and core OS functionality. LSPs are today provided by the incumbent MontaVista and the newer WindRiver (of VxWorks fame). The vendors provide LSPs with integration and professional services to help manufacturers like Motorola, NEC and Panasonic go to market with Linux-based handsets more quickly. Other manufacturers like Nokia (see 770 and N800) have opted to build their own Linux-based OS distribution from scratch, with the help of external communities.
B) Complete software stacks: In 2006 a number of vendors announced complete software stacks based on Linux, combining an LSP with an application framework, graphics subsystem, middleware libraries and core applications. Following the incumbent Korean vendor Mizi Research and Chinese HOpen, Trolltech followed with Greensuite and ALP (Access Linux Platform) announced their offering.
C) Productised software stacks: while a complete software stack may include all the software code a handset manufacturer needs, it still lacks interoperability testing, operator acceptance testing and other integration services which today are offered by A la Mobile, Aplix (with their BTO product) and Celunite which is still in stealth mode.
D) Moving a step further towards productisation, a range of vendors today offer complete hardware and software design services for Linux-based handsets. PurpleLabs, SysOpenDigia, Elektrobit, Cellon and Flextronics combine a Linux-based software stack with a hardware design optimised for Linux that can be licensed by the handset manufacturer and taken to market.
E) Finally, a new type of vendor has emerged that combines white-label hardware and software productisation with marketing and distribution: the example here is FIC, the Taiwan-based vendor who made the headlines in late 2006 with their OpenMoko fully open Linux platform. FIC produces Linux-based handsets both under its own brand, as well as under white-label business model.
For reviews of mobile Linux vendors such as MontaVista, A la Mobile, Trolltech and Mizi Research, you can downlad a white paper I wrote recently titled: Mobile Operating Systems: The New Generation.
Conclusively the mobile Linux market today consists of the entire gamut of offerings from LSPs (the Lego bricks) to complete Linux-based handset products (the castles). Undoubtedly, this market is still very volatile and competitive. Chipset vendors are increasingly pre-packaging their own LSPs with their hardware reference designs, manufacturers are in some case in-sourcing and in other cases outsouring Linux operating systems for their handsets. Finally operators like Orange and Vodafone are promising commitment to Linux platforms, while industry consortiums such as the X-foundation are hoping to provide a route to market for Linux-handsets.
Amidst the turmoil of volatility of vendor offerings and the hype of market demand, one can only refer to the age-old rhetoric: watch this space.