The mobile Linux grand alliance

Wow. Motorola, NEC, DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vodafone announced that they're banding together to create a unified Linux-based operating system for mobile devices. The group says it will create a unified set of APIs, but said nothing about user interface, so presumably they hope to differentiate from one-another at that level. The UI is pretty closely tied to the APIs, so I'm not sure how they will pull that off.

Anyway, this is potentially a major challenge to the Windows Mobile and Symbian worlds, as this new Linux would presumably be free of charge. I think it's also ominous for PalmSource/Access and TrollTech. It'll be much harder for any of the mobile OS companies to charge for their software if there's a practical free alternative. (Speculation: If Motorola had succeeded in buying PalmSource, would they be donating some or all of Palm OS for Linux to the new consortium? We'll never know.)

I think it's increasingly clear that OS plumbing is going to be a commodity in the mobile space; if you want to make money, you need to focus on the upper layers of the software.


On the other hand, the devil's in the details. As Symbian discovered, it is incredibly difficult to serve several different masters. DoCoMo can keep the Japanese vendors in line, but Motorola and Samsung are mortal enemies and I am very surprised to see them in the same camp. Maybe their mutual fear of Nokia and Microsoft trumped their dislike of one-another, but we'll see how long that lasts. Will the Linux partners band together to pull down the proprietary OS's, or will they use the knives on each other? Either way, the next couple of years should be a very entertaining.

5 comments:

Varun Singh said...

Motorola has dabbled in many OSes, they have had Linux phones and they have UIQ. maybe they would be able to add an interface layer which would allow UIQ to run on Linux?

Samsung has Windows mobile phones and S60 phones as well, maybe they just wish to add another OS and see hw the industry accepts each one before deciding on the way forward.

Michael Mace said...

Thanks for the comment, Varun.


>>maybe they would be able to add an interface layer which would allow UIQ to run on Linux?

SInce Symbian owns UIQ, I doubt they'd allow it to be ported to Linux. But stranger things have happened...


>>Samsung has Windows mobile phones and S60 phones as well, maybe they just wish to add another OS and see hw the industry accepts each one

Very possible. Samsung has been one of the most promiscuous of the handset companies in terms of its willingness to try different operating systems.

But I can tell you that what they live for is killing Nokia and Motorola. Nokia because it's #1, and Motorola becasue it's in the way on the road to Nokia.

If Samsung and Motorola can cooperate on this project long term, I'll be impressed (and surprised).

Barbara Ballard said...

I've had folks around me adopting Linux on their PCs with various degrees of success. One of the key challenges is getting drivers and similar to work with arbitrary hardware: putting Linux on a Dell laptop is likely to eliminate the ability to use the DVD player. Or whatever. This problem should be addressed by the fact that the manufacturer would (we hope!) make the software work on the device.

The second problem is the dearth of user experience innovation in Linux. Despite being on a different core data structure, the GUI generally replicates whatever the Windows version does. Modifying the user interface is quite challenging, and is normally restricted to so-called "look and feel". That is, fonts and maybe graphics. (example: look at the differences between NeoOffice and OpenOffice - it's a lot of work just to get the same software to look right on the Mac)

So what this alliance needs to do is to decide - NOW - what the core user experience for the devices might be. This means working on what classes of devices might be (feature phone, entertainment device, "smart phone", etc.), and then planning the user experience for core applications for each device class. This needs to be done obviously with an eye towards manufacturer differentiation - but differentiation should be restricted to adding peripheral features and colors/fonts/layout.

One key source of efficiency in development and user experience is keeping data structures the same across devices. This will make synchronization and data backup easy (SyncML is a good start, this would go further).

Sadly, the consortia I've seen end up mired in politics, with features defined by the engineers and executives, not those focused on the user.

I'm worried that this agreement will result in yet another "design by committee" design, and Linux phones will have the same sort of second-class status that Linux desktop software does.

Michael Mace said...

Very good points, Barbara. This is exactly the sort of thing that scares me about separating the APIs from the UI. The benefit of having a standard set of APIs is that a developer doesn't have to rewrite for every variant of the OS. But if the UI is totally different, you're back to rewriting and restructuring.

There are ways around this -- for example, creating a sophisticated object-oriented UI framework that automatically customizes itself, etc, etc. But that can easily turn into an endless science project, especially when you're designing by committee.


>>The consortia I've seen end up mired in politics, with features defined by the engineers and executives, not those focused on the user.

That's my fear too. A consortium has much more chance of success when one member is willing to really take the lead, contribute a lot of high-quality code to it, and basically push the other members to make decisions or stand aside. I think Motorola's the only one of the partners that can step up to this.

Moto CEO Ed Zander spent many years in Silicon Valley. He has to understand how these things work. I hope he's willing to make the necessary investments.

Barbara Ballard said...

>>That's my fear too. A consortium has much more chance of success when one member is willing to really take the lead, contribute a lot of high-quality code to it, and basically push the other members to make decisions or stand aside. I think Motorola's the only one of the partners that can step up to this.

Moto CEO Ed Zander spent many years in Silicon Valley. He has to understand how these things work. I hope he's willing to make the necessary investments.


I hope so but ... Motorola's past history at getting good, solid user interfaces has been abyssmal. Consider two major phone successes for them: the StarTAC and the RAZR. Both have sleek industrial design and bad user interface design. In fact, most users can not even find the browser on either phone - and that is after Moto went through two major UI redesigns, including dozens of user interface experts.

(I, of course, think they should hire an outside firm, like mine, to do the UI design. I'm not holding my breath.)