Can Linux make an impact on phones?

Can Linux make an impact on phones?

Mobile Linux is gaining attention but handset capabilities are more important than the software platform

One of the major themes that emerged from this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was Linux, with new Linux-based handset platforms on show and various applications and services for mobile Linux. Could this mean that Linux is likely to be a major rival for other mobile operating systems such as Symbian?

On the face of it, there seems to be a growing momentum behind mobile Linux. Vendors such as Motorola and LG showed off handsets based on the new LiMo platform, while ARM and Texas Instruments demonstrated prototype hardware running Google’s Android phone platform, which is also based on Linux.

Another Linux platform, Trolltech’s Qtopia Phone Edition, was freshened up with a new release at MWC, adding in support for touch-based user interfaces and a new Qtopia Sync Agent designed to let users synchronise information with Microsoft Outlook.

However, Trolltech is in the process of being acquired by Nokia, which wants the firm for its developer tools and application framework. While this does not necessarily mean the end for Trolltech, it must cast doubt over the future of its phone platform. Nokia uses Linux in its internet tablet products, but has been careful to avoid making these devices look like an alternative to its phones.

But the real problem with Linux is that it is a technology, rather than a product. Some handset makers and mobile operators look with a favourable eye on Linux because it saves on licence costs and can more easily be customised with a different user interface to suit a particular vendor’s preferences.

It is a position that can be compared with Linux on PCs; tech-heads love the operating system because it gets the job done with a minimum of fuss, to such an extent that a large proportion of internet sites are powered by Linux servers with an open-source application stack on top. On the desktop, however, Linux has failed to gain significant market share, even though some distributions are now arguably easier to use than Windows. User familiarity and application compatibility trump other considerations.

For these reasons, Linux seems more likely to target the lower end of the handset market, where the ability to shave a few pounds off the bill of materials is vital.

In the enterprise market, BlackBerry seems to have a firm grip on mobile email for executives, while business phones are more likely to be chosen for the rest of the workforce because of deals on tariffs offered with particular models. These are likely to be Nokia, since the Finnish giant accounts for half of all phones sold globally. Meanwhile, Windows Mobile handsets have the selling point that they can link directly with Exchange email servers.

However, if buyers really do not care what software is on their phone, so long as it has the right capabilities, then Linux could be in with a chance. If a Linux handset can provide corporate email compatibility and the ability to view Office documents in email attachments, then firms may be interested ­ - but despite the fact it runs Linux rather than because of it.