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Linux gets its 'Moto' running

With phone called "Ming," company builds Chinese dynasty, helps Linux in its advance against Great Wall of rival OSes.

Does Motorola's success with its Linux-based "Ming" phones in China indicate that the open-source platform is now a serious contender against Symbian and Windows Mobile in the handheld-device software platform arena?

The phone maker, which debuted the Ming smart phone in March in China, shipped more than 1 million Linux-based units in China alone last quarter, according to research firm Canalys. Other Linux-based Motorola smart phones that shipped recently in China include the .

Motorola's recent feat in China helped cement its worldwide No. 2 position, surpassing Research In Motion, Sharp Electronics and Palm, according to Canalys. However, Motorola still trails top-dog Nokia by a fat margin.

The Ming smart phone will be launched in other "high-growth markets" in the second half of this year, according to Alan Nicklos, vice president of mobile devices at Motorola Asia. High-growth markets for the company are Africa, Southwest Asia, North Asia and Southeast Asia.

Support for Linux in embedded applications has been steadily gaining in momentum, as witnessed by several developments this year.

In June, six mobile players--Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung Electronics and Vodafone--established a foundation to work on a universal, mobile Linux platform.

The foundation plans to focus on the joint development and marketing of an API (application programming interface) specification and architecture. It will support source code-based reference implementation components and tools, and take advantage of "the benefits of community-based and proprietary development."

Eirik Chambe-Eng, co-founder of a popular mobile Linux platform, Norway-based Trolltech, says Linux gives handset manufacturers and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) "complete control," and in turn keeps Microsoft and Symbian at bay.

Trolltech is the provider of the Qtopia development environment and graphical user interface, which is used by many Linux mobile-phone makers.

"We definitely see a profound effect in the long term, as Linux becomes a viable alternative for other OEM platforms," said Wilvin Chee, director of IDC Asia-Pacific's software research. "In terms of the cost factor and (application) modifications, Linux allows a lot more (cell phone) users and developers to be involved."

Chee added that with initiatives like Eclipse in support of Linux, manufacturers, mobile-software developers and phone makers have the opportunity to engage in close cooperation. "Lack of proprietary control allows proper dialogue," he said.

A check on showed that besides Motorola, vendors such as NEC, Siemens, Panasonic and Samsung have a fairly wide range of Linux-based phone models on the market.

Chinese vendors such as E28, Ningbo Bird, Haier and Longcheer Holdings also have several Linux smart phones retailing in various markets.

But while the open-source movement for handheld devices has been going strong, research shows that for now, Linux for embedded applications still has a lot of catching up to do.

Symbian remains by far the top operating system for mobile devices, according to Canalys, with a 67 percent share, well ahead of second-place Windows Mobile, with 15 percent of the market.

It also doesn't help that top phone maker Nokia has refused to swing its votes toward Linux. Company representative Maija Taimi told ZDNet Asia that Nokia, a major stakeholder in Symbian, is "committed to the Symbian OS."

Nokia has yet to announce plans to develop mobile devices based on Linux, though it has introduced "selected open-source elements" such as JavaScript to its S60 phone. The Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, which belongs to the company's non-cellular-device category, is also based on Linux.

Jeanne Lim of ZDNet Asia reported from Singapore.