Will Google fracture or unify mobile Linux?

Google's Open Handset Alliance is at least the fifth consortium tackling Linux-based mobile phone technology. Developer support could help determine its success.

Forgive me if I appear a little skeptical here about Google's Open Handset Alliance. By my count, it's the fifth consortium so far to attempt to craft something useful for mobile phones out of Linux and open-source software.

OHA has by far the highest profile, it's got the most persuasive list of members, and its timing is the best. What's not yet clear is whether the "Android" work of Google and its allies will unify or further fragment work in the area.

Rallying programmers behind a unified effort could help determine whether this effort will accomplish more than the Linux Phone Standard (Lips) Forum, the Open Source Developer Labs' Mobile Linux Initiative, the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF), and most recently, the LiMo Foundation begun in 2006. Related efforts one step removed include Intel's Moblin and, Nokia's Maemo, and any number of other open-source projects .

Just as with PCs, somebody has to write a "stack" of software spanning from basic operating system functions all the way through communication utilities, user interfaces and Web browsers. Unlike PCs so far, though, the mobile phone market has suffered from a profusion of incompatible software foundations, despite some efforts to use Linux and Java to bring some common ground.

That fragmentation has meant that, for example, a programmer writing a game has had to adapt the program for each phone variation. To break even financially, a programmer must retool the software for 200 to 400 different phone varieties, according to Bill Weinberg, who has been involved in Linux mobile phones at start-up , the OSDL's now-cancelled Mobile Linux Initiative, and now is general manager of the Lips Forum.

Google's plan has a lot of potential for drawing a critical mass of programmers that could help sidestep some of the fragmentation issue. For one thing, the company has a solid track record of getting programmers all fired up. That includes open-source developers and those building Web-based software that runs atop Google programming foundations, two communities important in the phone market.

For another, OHA phones are scheduled to arrive in the latter half of 2008, which gives a bit more time for the hardware to catch up with the software. Thus far, creating a svelte version of Linux for phones has proved harder than finding heavy-duty hardware that can handle the operating system and higher-level add-ons.

One significant partner in OHA is Wind River Systems, a relatively recent Linux convert that now makes a business of customizing the operating system for mobile phones and other embedded computing devices. The company, which has signed Linux support contracts for more than two dozen phone designs in the last year, will supply OHA with the operating system and integrate it with the hardware, said Chief Marketing Officer John Bruggeman.

"Over the last year or so, it's become real," Bruggeman said of Linux in mobile phones. The OHA software, including version 2.6.21 of the Linux kernel, will work fine on next year's mid-range phones, he said.

But to appeal to the maximum number of programmers, Google had the option of joining existing Linux phone efforts--most notably the LiMo Foundation, which includes NTT DoCoMo, Wind River, and Motorola as notable common OHA members.

Unlike the earlier Linux phone efforts, LiMo has a philosophical similarity with Google's effort: it's producing Linux-based software, not just interface standards that phone makers must then implement. So why not join?

"LiMo, very candidly, wasn't moving fast enough," said Bruggeman, who is a member of its board. "There's nothing like a good announcement like this that will get you back, focused, and get you to speed up," he added, predicting that the LiMo phones should arrive before the Mobile World Congress show (formerly called 3GSM) in Barcelona.

Bruggeman doesn't see competition with LiMo though, nor does the foundation's executive director, Morgan Gillis.

"Google's focus is on the mobile user experience"--higher-level interface software--"and LiMo's focus is on the underlying middleware platform," the phone software plumbing for tasks such as actually placing calls, Gillis said. A LiMo phone could run Google's software as well as alternatives such as a Vodafone's software, Gillis said.

Wind River hopes its position in both groups will help bridge the divide: a programmer using Wind River's Linux version and programming tools will be able to write software that will work on both, Bruggeman said. "Time will tell if they compete or complement or they combine, but certainly I see a role for what both bring," he said.

Another fragmentation risk is with Sun Microsystems' Java technology. OHA phones will be able to run Java ME software through use of Java software from Android partner Esmertec, the alliance said. And in a blog posting Monday, Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz was quick to paint Google's plan as a victory for Java.

But that opinion glosses over the realities of the Java marketplace. Sun hoped the Java "write once, run anywhere" software foundation would unify mobile phones, but instead different phones often implement different variations of what's now called Java Mobile Edition.

And while the Google alliance signed up for Java ME, Sun itself is headed on a different path to gradually replace Java ME with Java Standard Edition, the version that runs on desktop computers --in part to deal with the fragmentation issue.

So it's clear that fragmentation is not just yesterday's issue. No doubt, more details on Google's plans are sure to emerge next week when the alliance releases the software developer kit. Even if that will mean a relatively uniform interface for programmers, OHA will have plenty of work to do marshaling the resources of the open-source realm.

 

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