Linux coming to cell phones

A half dozen companies are developing cell phones based on the open-source operating system, an executive familiar with the plans says. But the OS faces stiff competition.

A half dozen companies are developing cell phones based on the Linux operating system, an executive familiar with the plans said Friday.

Among the big names backing Linux for mobile phones are chipmaker Texas Instruments and device maker NEC, representatives from the two companies confirmed Friday.

Also, two phone manufacturers will ship Linux phones that work on the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) standard sometime this year, according to Scott Hedrick, a marketing manager at MontaVista Software, which makes the Linux chips destined for these phones. Hedrick would not identify the phone makers. Two additional Asian phone makers Hedrick did not identify are also making Linux phones, he said.

Cell phones are a new foray for the Linux operating system, which has found its initial stronghold inside servers, powerful networked computers. Companies including MontaVista Software, TimeSys, Red Hat, LynuxWorks and Motorola are all trying to adapt the software for the embedded computing market, which includes cell phones and other consumer-electronics products and devices.

Linux has some powerful competition. Leading the pack is Symbian, an operating system backed by most of the major phone makers and already in at least one phone on the market. Microsoft has won a few converts for its Windows Powered Smartphone and Pocket PC Phone Edition operating systems. PalmSource's operating system is also grabbing some customers as well.

But Linux is the only OS for the next generation of phones that is open source, a mixed blessing, according to Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with IDC.

An open-source OS is generally less expensive than anything developed privately, likely a key point in helping Linux win wireless converts, Waryas said. However, some U.S. wireless carriers doubt that Linux can ever be secure enough to trust with their billion dollar networks, he said.

And Linux has got some pretty powerful competition, Waryas said. For instance, Symbian is backed by most of the cell phone industry, including Nokia, Motorola, Samsung Electronics, Siemens and SonyEricsson.

"You can't forget that the people backing Symbian are also the ones making most of the mobile phones," Waryas said.

Texas Instruments representative Dana Meyers said Friday that several manufacturers are working to develop wireless devices using a Linux version of OMAP, or Open Multimedia Applications Protocol. Meyers would not identify the customers developing phones. OMAP is used to build cell phones.

Seiji Mitsuoka, NEC general manager, said in a statement that NEC is using MontaVista's Linux chips to "help us deliver Linux-based mobile phones to global markets."

Mitsuoka did not release additional details on NEC's Linux phone plans.

A Microsoft representative had no comment. A PalmSource representative had no immediate comment when reached on Friday.

News.com's Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.

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