Linux calling: Are cell phones ready?

Open-source group plans to launch effort to push the operating system for the ever more powerful mobile gadgets.

The Open Source Development Labs, an industry consortium devoted to improving Linux, plans to launch an initiative Monday to bring the open-source operating system to mobile phones.

OSDL's Mobile Linux Initiative is intended to improve Linux for the small, but increasingly powerful, devices. It's also set up to spur development of applications, outline requirements for different cell phone uses and host related open-source development projects.

OSDL hopes the work will reproduce the success of an earlier effort pooling work by Linux software and hardware allies, the Carrier Grade project to tailor Linux to telecommunications gear.

"There was a tremendous price-performance gain when people transitioned to Linux for the telecom equipment manufacturers. Now people are looking for that in the mobile area," OSDL Chief Executive Stuart Cohen said.


What's new:
The Open Source Development Labs is firing up an effort to promote the development and adoption of embedded Linux in cell phones.

Bottom line:
Linux allies are angling for a slice of a growing market--but are up against Microsoft, Symbian and custom operating systems.

More stories on embedded Linux

Mobile phones are a growing market--research firm Ovum expects 2.8 billion of them will be sold in 2009--so it's no surprise that many companies are angling for the business. Linux allies are up against Microsoft and Symbian for high-end phones and several other, often custom-written, operating systems for the mass market.

Among the 20 OSDL member companies involved are chipmaker Intel and embedded operating system companies MontaVista Software, Wind River Systems and PalmSource. The group's in-person meeting will be Monday in Beijing, in the country where much mobile phone research and development takes place, Cohen said.

MontaVista, a specialist in Linux for gadgets and networking gear, already has a version of the operating system for mobile phones--indeed, it's used in several handsets from Motorola. Wind River and PalmSource are relatively recent Linux converts.

Intel has pushed Linux for years, funding development and working on several projects itself, and the operating system is most widely used on computers based on its chips. But while Intel is dominant in desktops and servers, it has made less headway in processors for cell phones, where its competitors include Texas Instruments and ARM Holdings.

Technical goals
Today, Linux is suitable chiefly for higher-end phones with powerful processors and larger amounts of memory. Part of the OSDL group's technical work will be to spread the software to more widely used but less powerful devices, said Bill Weinberg, OSDL's open-source architecture specialist.

"There are a set of economic and technical barriers that have prevented Linux from enjoying more market share across the total phone space," Weinberg said. Economic barriers have included supporting the low-cost, integrated components used on lower-end phones, he said.

Motorola E895

One technical goal of the Mobile Linux Initiative will be to bring software enhancements to the "mainline" kernel, the heart of the operating system. The kernel is maintained by Linux leader Linus Torvalds and his allies, who have preferred to work on mainstream enhancements rather than on features geared specifically to "embedded" computing devices such as cell phones, robot controllers and automated teller machines.

"The handset manufacturers' deeply embedded requirements are...not making their way back into the kernel," Cohen said.

Although Torvalds is employed by OSDL, his work is independent from the various industry initiatives at the Beaverton, Ore.-based organization. Less than a year ago, Torvalds expressed skepticism about bringing some embedded features to the mainline kernel.

But Weinberg believes the Mobile Linux Initiative can find a way to bring some features into the kernel--for example, by setting up an overarching mechanism to deal with power management.

Slowing processors down during idle moments is critical to preserve batteries in cell phones, but that power-management approach is now also used to preserve mobile computer battery power and to cut

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