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Motorola dialing up mainstream Linux phones

The open-source operating system is poised to move beyond high-end handsets and into a more wallet-friendly realm. Photo: Linux Rokr

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--For Motorola, the No. 2 maker of mobile phones, Linux is the way of the future.

"We've got to the point where 50 (percent) to 60 percent of our phone platforms will be Linux-based in the next couple years," Greg Besio, vice president of mobile device software, said in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here.

So far, Motorola's Linux phone efforts have been confined largely to Asia, and there only with high-end "feature phones." Now Motorola has brought Linux to a more mainstream model, the Rokr E2, which Besio showed off during a speech at the Linux show.

Greg Besio Motorola

But in 2007, consumers in North America and Europe will begin to see widespread Linux phones as Motorola pushes the open-source operating system into mainstream models costing between $100 and $300, Besio said. "That's where we're targeting Linux," he said.

Since it began shipping Linux-powered mobile phones three years ago, the Shaumberg, Ill.-based company has shipped 5 million handsets, Besio said. That may sound like a lot, but 5 million in three years is a blip compared with, for example, the 51.9 million total it shipped in the second quarter of 2006, according to research firm iSuppli.

Linux's spread to mobile phones is a remarkable achievement for an operating system that's chiefly popular in powerful servers with multiple processors, abundant memory, and a full-time connection to a power plug. Linux--freely available and collectively developed by a numerous programmers across the world--has surpassed Microsoft operating systems in phones and is on track to surpass Symbian in 2010, Motorola said.

But the freedoms that come with Linux bring complications. Motorola is concerned that Linux could fragment into incompatible versions in the market, said Christy Wyatt, leader of Motorola's efforts to build a cooperative Linux "ecosystem."

"We've seen with other technologies, like Java, that fragmentation can really impact and impede technology over time," Wyatt said during the keynote speech. "If we have 15 Linuxes, in my opinion we will have failed."

To try to curtail such fragmentation, Motorola launched an effort called the Open Platform Initiative along with device makers Panasonic, NEC and Samsung. Also on board are telecommunications companies NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone, the largest carriers in Asia and Europe, respectively.

One goal of the partnership is to specify standard modules of Linux software--at low levels such as the kernel and higher levels such as applications, Besio said. But another is to signal to other companies that they should consider throwing their weight into the cooperative programming effort.

"If we make the investment, then another will make the investment, and then we start to get the power of the ecosystem in Linux," Besio said. And indicating to programmers that there's a foundation they can trust will encourage them to produce software they can be confident will ship in large volumes, he added.

But there's fragmentation at a higher level. The effort by Motorola and its allies is one of four to standardize Linux for mobile devices. Others are run at the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum, the Open Source Development Labs

, and the Linux Phone Standards (Lips) Forum. In an announcement Monday, OSDL and the Lips Forum formally agreed to work together.

Motorola is in contact with some of the parallel efforts and hopes to unify the work, Besio said. "We'd like to make all those pieces fit together," he said.

But Linux also raises issues about what foundation programmers should use. Motorola has long advocated another foundation, Sun Microsystems' Java. Besio said he expects both to be used--and a third as well, the Web browser that ties into portals and other online services.

"I don't think you can pick a winner today," he said. "The Sun guys were a little bit nervous that we we'd forgotten about Java. That is not the case."

Besio also applauded as "awesome" Sun's announcement Monday that it would make the gadget-oriented Java ME into open-source software by the end of 2006.

"It's completely aligning with what we're trying to do," Besio said.

Motorola uses versions of Linux prepared by MontaVista Software in its phones, but it's evaluating embedded software from rival Wind River Systems as well, Besio said. Wind River has long sold software for embedded computing devices but only recently embraced Linux; MontaVista focused on Linux from its start.

"I see them as equal competitors," Besio said. "MontaVista has better tools, Wind River has more embedded depth. It's a horse race."