Linux is by far the software most commonly associated with (and often mis-identified with) open source and free software, where free refers to liberty, not costs. However the access to source code, ability to modify or redistribute, or the royalty-free nature of Linux are hardly the reasons why four out of five handset OEMs have adopted Linux. In other words, mobile Linux has not been adopted because of its free software qualities.
In 2007, handset OEMs have adopted Linux to varying degrees, from Motorola s portfolio-wide Linux strategy to Nokia s Internet Tablets segment-specific strategic experiment with Linux. The reasons behind the almost-unanimous OEM turn towards Linux are as follows:
– Reduced cost and time-to-market. The availability of a stable, high portable Linux kernel, hundreds of supporting royalty-free middleware components, thousands of Linux developer enthusiasts and a growing number of commercial mobile Linux software and service providers mean that mobile Linux is an effective operating system for mobile handsets, both in terms of time-to-market and cost of development. According to Nokia, one of the most successful corporate entities in working with open source, “Linux is the launching pad you need to stand on to be productive .. we have never managed to bring out a product in such a short time, with so few resources .
– Wider choice: handset manufacturers have considerable freedom in selecting the middleware components of choice whether from open source communities, or in some cases from closed-source commercial components. A healthy exists in Linux-based software components such as graphics frameworks (e.g GTK+, Qt Core, FluffyPants), application environments (e.g. Qtopia, Hiker, Hildon, OpenMoko, SKY-MAP), multimedia frameworks, PIM middleware, file systems and telephony APIs.
– Strategic control: Linux-based operating systems afford manufacturers almost as much control of the platform roadmap as their in-house OSes. Manufacturers are much less dependent on a single software supplier, effectively lowering the cost of switching suppliers, an important strategic consideration. Furthermore, manufacturers are able to steer platform development of their own Linux OS variant in any direction they wish.
– Scalability: The Linux kernel has evolved over the years, to one of the most scalable and reliable operating systems, powering commercial mobile devices from low-end single-core feature phones to high-end smartphones. Manufacturers may easily trim unnecessary features or add high-end features such as USB support and VoIP protocols which are widely available for Linux distributions for PCs.
– Quality: Peer-review of popular Linux-based open source software provides for fewer software defects ( bugs ). Both Nokia and Panasonic report that Linux-based software for mobile handsets has a high quality and very few bugs, compared to typical in-house software
– Innovation: The open, decentralised nature of Linux backed by strong developer communities, makes Linux-based operating systems a good choice for cultivating innovation. Chances are, a component will be already available somewhere in the Linux community ecosystem and can be adapted to a mobile Linux OS.
[Want to learn more about open source and its impact on the mobile industry? Register for the pre-workshop ‘A Crash Course in Mobile Open Source: Economics, Licensing, Linux, Java and Beyond’ (see here for workshop agenda) delivered by VisionMobile as part of Informa’s Open Source In Mobile conference taking place in Madrid on 17-20 September. Next on this series: How open source is shaking up the mobile browser market.]