Linux to power most Motorola phones

The tech giant will begin selling its first cell phone based on Linux this year and says most models will follow suit--a sign of the growing popularity of the operating system.

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Stephen Shankland
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Motorola will begin selling its first cell phone based on Linux this year and says most models will follow suit, a major sign of the growing popularity of the operating system outside its stronghold on high-end computers.

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Motorola's Linux-powered A760, an elaborate color-screen phone with a digital camera, MP3 audio player, video player and the ability to run Java programs, will go on sale in Asia in the third quarter, with introductions in North America and Europe to follow. Eventually, the company plans to move Linux to lower-end phones, said Scott Durschlag, corporate vice president for strategy and business development for Motorola's personal communications sector.

"We think we'll move millions of units" of cell phones running Linux, Durschlag said. "I think you'll see it take over the majority of our portfolio going forward," including lower-end phones.

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 use of Linux in smaller devices.

"What Motorola articulated is (that) the future for their high-end handset lineup is Linux," said Yankee Group wireless technologies analyst John Jackson. "This is a pretty interesting statement from a company with the size, scope and market of Motorola."

But in the market for powerful "smart" phones, Linux won't have an easy time duking it out with earlier arrivals from Microsoft, Palmsource and the Symbian consortium, a group that includes Motorola, IDC analyst Alex Slawsby said.

By 2006, IDC believes Symbian will have increased its market share in powerful phones to 53 percent from its current 46 percent. Microsoft will have about 27 percent of the market, with Palm at 10 percent. IDC predicts that Linux could take as much as 4.2 percent.

"We expect Linux to continue to be a niche opportunity," said Alex Slawsby, IDC's analyst for smart handhelds. "It will be in the rear."

Linux is available for free, but cost wasn't the reason Motorola made the move, Durschlag said. Instead, the Libertyville, Ill.-based company believes it can develop products sooner by tapping into the fast pace of the open-source community that cooperatively produces Linux, Durschlag said.

"To be honest, speed is more of a driver for us than cost," he said. "It's more efficient to work with (Linux) because there are more modules we won't have to develop ourselves."

Motorola's Linux phones will run Java, a programming language and related software initially created by Sun Microsystems that shields programs from differences in what particular processor and operating system a computing device uses. Motorola leads a multicompany consortium that defines Java for small devices such as cell phones, with participation from companies including Nokia, Vodafone, Samsung, NTT DoCoMo and Symbian.

Motorola's Linux-powered A760 phone

"The operating system isn't that interesting. It's coupling Linux and Java together," Durschlag said. The company hasn't changed its strategy of encouraging the use of Java for programmers who write cell phone software such as games or business applications.

Outsiders agree. "The story here isn't really Linux on cell phones. It's Java running on Linux," Jackson said. "It's more about it being a bigger part of Motorola's Java strategy than it is about the efficacy or viability of Linux."

Motorola won't be developing its own version of Linux. Instead, it will rely on a software partnership with MontaVista Software, which said in January that it expected a version of its Linux for cell phones. The company, unlike competitors such as Red Hat, concentrates on "embedded" devices such as DVD players or network routers.

MontaVista, which makes money selling Linux programming tools, but doesn't charge per-unit royalties, declined to comment on details of its relationship with Motorola.

Linux and Java archenemy, Microsoft, said Motorola's move doesn't change things much--it's just a new variation on the fight to lure programmers to Microsoft software rather than Java. Microsoft believes it has the best total collection of software, including operating system, programming tools and higher-level software, said Ed Kaim, product manager for .Net mobile development at Microsoft.

"Our concern is about making the best experience for developers. We feel it's going to be the developer experience that drives these devices, not the operating system itself," Kaim said.

Microsoft advocates the use of software such as its Pocket PC Phone Edition and .Net Compact Framework for use in mobile gadgets.

Linux does give Motorola something it can't get from Microsoft or Symbian: control.

"By using Linux instead of Symbian or Windows, they are in control of their own upgrade cycle," said Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt, adding that Java ensures Motorola flexibility as well. "Although they will be pioneers in Linux cell phones, the fact that application is written in Java leaves them reasonably insulated from the underlying operating system."

Linux, once a mere hobby, has become influential in the computing industry. For example, cell phone maker Nokia has responded to requests from Linux programmers to release a Linux version of development software.

And at the other end of the dial tone, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and others are pushing the use of Linux for telecommunications gear.

NEC is the only other major device maker committed to selling cell phones using a Linux operating system. A representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Most phone handset makers, including market leader Nokia, don't have any current plans to use Linux, Slawsby said. "Nobody else is doing it wirelessly on the major brand side," he said.

Nokia is happy with its current non-Linux plans. "Right now, we're supporting Symbian in our smart phones," said Nokia representative Keith Nowak. "We think it's the best option."

In smart phones, IDC's Slawsby believes Linux won't be a mainstream technology, but Motorola's embrace of Linux is giving the operating system a boost.

"Linux-Java has been pushed by no-name vendors for a few years," Slawsby said. "This adds more wood to the flame."