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.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
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

electricity consumption and waste heat in servers. But what makes power management hard to handle is that processor makers are all using different interfaces, Weinberg said.

"That kind of hardware divergence needs to be captured in a single umbrella technology more aligned with the mainstream kernel," Weinberg said.

Another challenge the group will tackle will be to handle mobile phone "baseband" processors, the part of the chip that deals with radio communication tasks. Today, a "real-time" operating system with a very fast response time to high-priority interruptions is most often used in the baseband component, but OSDL wants Linux to arrive there, too. Right now, Weinberg said, Linux can keep up with the 800-microsecond response time necessary--but not on a chip that slows down to conserve power or that juggles many different tasks.

Being able to support baseband processors' software will help Linux spread into mainstream phones, Weinberg said.

Political considerations
Setting up industry consortia can involve a lot of diplomacy, and the Mobile Linux Initiative is no exception.

One problem is that at least two similar projects already are under way: one at the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum and the Linux Phone Software Forum, set up by France Telecom and its allies.

ODSL's Cohen said the three groups are working closely together to sidestep turf problems.

"We spent a lot of time in the last 60 days to make sure there's a minimum amount of duplication of effort, no competitive issues, and that what we and they are doing is consistent and complementary," Cohen said.

Another potentially touchy area is the participation of MontaVista. It's not uncommon for a company that has an edge over competitors in a particular market to resist helping out consortia that will erode its advantage.

But MontaVista wanted to participate for a number of reasons, said Peder Ulander, MontaVista's vice president of marketing. For one thing, the initiative could help pull together many hardware and software companies into a united front--and bring MontaVista's brand to new partners. For another, settling down basic software will help MontaVista concentrate on higher-level services such as support of TV and video.

If the effort succeeds, the result will be a simpler softwre environment for mobile phone makers and more widespread use of Linux, Weinberg said. "The handset manufacturers would like to see a single operating system, and Linux is a strong candidate," he said.