Motorola unveils first Linux smart phone

The cell phone maker unveils its first Linux-powered handset, part of an ambitious plan to use the open-source operating system to power all of its phone products.

Matthew Broersma Special to CNET News
3 min read
Motorola has launched its first handset powered by Linux, in a move being closely watched by those who foresee a bright future for the open-source operating system on portable devices.

The Schaumburg, Ill.-based company introduced the A760 handset, along with eight other models, on Friday in Taiwan. The launch was timed ahead of the Taipei International Telecommunications & Networking Show, which begins on Saturday.

The A760 is a high-end smart phone that combines a personal information management suite, a video player, a music player and an instant-messaging tool. It will initially be available only in the Asia Pacific region, with European and U.S. release expected later.

Motorola has said it plans to eventually use Linux in most of its handsets, including the less-expensive models. The phone was announced in February, at the same time as Motorola's outlined its ambitious Linux plans--it is the only major cell phone company using Linux in its branded handsets.

Linux is collectively created by a large group of open-source programmers, many of whom work for companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard that sell hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of high-end server computers running the Unix-like operating system. Now, though, several companies are advocating the use of Linux in smaller devices.

In the market for smart phones, however, Linux won't have an easy time competing against operating systems from Microsoft, PalmSource and Symbian, a Britain-based developer owned by a group of handset makers that includes Motorola.

Research firm IDC has estimated that by 2006, Symbian will have increased its market share in high-powered phones to 53 percent, from its current 46 percent. Microsoft is expected to have about 27 percent of the market, with Palm at 10 percent. Linux is predicted to take as much as 4.2 percent, according to IDC.

Linux is available for free, but cost wasn't the reason Motorola made its move, the company said. The handset maker believes it can develop products faster with Linux, given the rapid development pace of the open-source community that cooperatively produces the software.

Motorola's Linux phones will run Java, which is a programming language and related software from Sun Microsystems that overcomes differences between the particular processor and the operating system used by a computing device. Motorola leads a multicompany consortium that defines Java for small devices like mobile phones, with participation from companies including Nokia, Vodafone, Samsung, NTT DoCoMo and Symbian.

For its Linux software, Motorola is relying on a partnership with MontaVista Software. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company, unlike competitors such as Red Hat, concentrates on products for embedded devices such as DVD players and network routers. MontaVista makes money selling Linux programming tools, but doesn't charge per-unit royalties.

Microsoft, an opponent of Linux and Java, said Motorola's move doesn't change things much--it's just a new variation on the fight to lure programmers to Java rather than to Microsoft's products. The company advocates the use of software such as its Pocket PC Phone Edition and .Net Compact Framework for use in mobile gadgets.

Motorola's involvement with embedded Linux extends beyond cell phones. Last December, the company's Metrowerks subsidiary acquired Embedix--one of the first companies to put Linux into embedded hardware--in a move to broaden its software and development tools for non-PC gadgets.

Embedix, formerly known as Lineo, sells Linux operating-system kernels for handheld devices, digital television set-top boxes and home Internet gateways. It also provides Linux OS-based development tools and middleware for electronics designers. The development tools are now sold alongside Metrowerks' own development tools and those of Applied Microsystems, recently acquired by Metrowerks.

ZDNet UK's Matthew Broersma reported from London. CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland and Ben Charny contributed to this report.