Intel, Nokia and Google do battle in mobile Linux market

The battle lines are being drawn in a contest that will almost certainly define the design of mobile phones over the next five years.

Many in the industry will be pleased to see the emergence of Linux and other open source software as the basis of most mobile phone developments. But if anyone thought the open source approach would do away with the commercial battle for control of the mobile phone platform, they are likely to be disappointed.

All the major software companies are lining up behind a set of different so-called “standard” approaches to what will be the first open source mobile phone platform.

Spelling out GNU and Linux stories

Microsoft, Symbian – soon to be owned by Nokia – and Google are in the contest, and last week Intel made its intentions clear when it acquired a small but significant London-based Linux open source software development company called OpenedHand.

The move is part of Intel’s open source project, called Moblin, for its recently announced family of Atom processors. These are Intel’s mobile internet device (MID) processors.

As part of this open source project Intel created a website to act as a source of development tools, including source code for all of the major components of the Moblin platform, documentation and sample code.

With the acquisition of OpenedHand, which also has offices in Paris and Helsinki, Intel has gained a new resource of open source mobile software platforms and has worked with Nokia, One Laptop Per Child, OpenMoko and STMicroelectronics, as well as Intel.

Intel’s plans for Linux and open source platforms sit alongside other industry moves in the field of open source mobile phone platforms. These include Nokia’s open source plans for the Symbian OS, the LiMo foundation and Google’s Android OS.

The various groups may be offering open source software, but there are subtle differences in approach. For example, the LiMo platform is licensed through Collaborative Source using the FPL licence, while Symbian OS is licensed through the Eclipse Public licence.

This means the LiMo platform is also based on the Linux kernel, which has significant development resources behind it. “Strong support from mobile operators shows the popularity of the LiMo platform; however, Android’s momentum in the developer community, backed by Google’s brand strength, should almost guarantee its acceptance,” comments Sravan Kundojjala, an analyst at market watcher Strategy Analytics.

With Google developing support for its Android open source mobile platform and Intel putting together its own open source project, the contest for the heart of the 4G mobile has only just begun. Nokia’s plan to create a royalty-free OS for mobiles has turned the cost model for software vendors on its head.

“Lower costs for the Symbian operating system spell bad news for licensable rivals, such as Google Android and Microsoft Windows Mobile,” says Bonny Joy, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.

Last November, a senior executive at Qualcomm told EW that an open software environment was critical for further development of mobile phones.

Enrico Salvatori, vice-president and general manager for Qualcomm CDMA Technologies Europe, was speaking to EW following Google’s proposal for an open software platform based on Mobile Linux for mobile devices, which is called Android.

Google’s Android mobile OS is already royalty-free so the larger threat is to Microsoft’s Windows Mobile OS.

The industry is waiting to see how Microsoft will react to the OS challenge. One possible option is for it to cut the cost of their licences.

So it is likely that the mobile market will have to come to terms with more than one “standard” approach. What is more certain is that the proprietary mobile operating systems of Microsoft, RIM and Apple will have to adapt to the open source revolution to survive.

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