Mobile Platforms: Linux -- a land of misconceptions

Part 5: Linux. Not so much an operating system as it is a kernel, Linux has a loyal following and is bound to take mobility by storm -- if mobile purists allow it.

Mobile managers face a tough choice when weighing which mobile platform or operating system to deploy to mobilize the workforce. There's BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm OS, Symbian, Linux and J2ME. How do they choose? Which platforms perform which functions well, and where do they fall short?

We at SearchMobileComputing.com want to make that choice a little easier. We've assembled a team of experts and asked them to weigh the good and bad of each mobile platform. On the fourth Wednesday of each month, we'll present the pluses and minuses of a different platform. With this series of stories, we hope to help you choose the platform that's right for your company and help you cast aside those that may not fit your needs.

Part 5: Linux. Not so much an operating system as it is a kernel, Linux has a loyal following and is bound to take mobility by storm -- if mobile purists allow it.

This may come as a shock to some, but mobile Linux is not really a mobile operating system. Nor is it a platform, per se. Still, the notion of mobile Linux plays strongly into the operating system, making it an integral part of a mobile strategy, if mobile managers choose to let it.

Mobile Linux has been surrounded by a number of common misconceptions, according to David Beers, founder of Pikesoft Mobile Computing, a Colorado-based mobile software developer.

"If we want to be technically precise," Beers said, "Linux is not an operating system but a kernel that can be a central part of any number of different operating systems, connecting the computer's software to the various resources provided by the hardware: the processor, memory, network adapters, screen, etc."

Mobile Linux cannot really be weighed against other mobile operating systems like Palm OS and Windows Mobile, Beers said, simply because there are many flavors of Linux.

"You can say things like 'Palm OS has an intuitive user interface' or 'Windows Mobile requires a more powerful processor,' but you can't make these generalizations about mobile Linux because it can have many different user interfaces depending on the distribution and can have vastly different hardware requirements ranging from a server in a Google data center all the way down to a single-chip computer the size of your little finger," Beers said. "It's actually this flexibility of Linux that is its primary advantage. But that advantage accrues directly mainly to someone who wants to make a Linux-powered device or operating system, not to enterprise IT managers."

Despite many of the common misconceptions, research by Gartner Inc. found that in the first quarter of 2006, Linux placed second in the smartphone operating system market, taking a 26% market share and shipping 4.6 million units. Linux was beaten out by Symbian, which dominated with 65% of the smartphone operating system market and shipped 11.5 million units. In the PDA market, Linux ranked fifth, capturing only 1.2% of the market, with 43,530 units shipped, placing behind Microsoft, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM), Palm OS and Symbian. In the overall combined smartphones and PDA markets, however, Linux again placed second with 21.8% of the market, once more falling behind Symbian, which held 54.4% of the combined market.

Gartner analyst Todd Kort said the numbers show that so far Linux has not quite gained traction in the handhelds market, but that its ranking is improving.

"Still, it's mostly a consumer play on the handheld side," he said.

The Good

Beers said that mobile Linux offers many of the same benefits on a mobile handset or PDA as it does on an enterprise server, such as security, reliability and robustness. He said that Linux is known to be less vulnerable than Windows to viruses and malware. The reliability and robustness of a Linux phone depends, however, on the quality of the platform middleware and application software.

There is no consistency among flavors of Linux. You may be able to master Red Hat Linux, but be ignorant when it comes to TrollTech Linux.
Todd Kort
AnalystGartner Inc.

 "Linux has the advantage that a problem with one application is very unlikely to crash the operating system or other applications," Beers said. "As handsets start to approach the complexity of personal computers from only a few years ago, this advantage becomes very significant and is one of the driving factors behind mobile Linux adoption."

The flexible modular architecture of Linux can also support a broad range of devices with divergent capabilities, not just mobile phones but specialized devices for vertical applications. Mobile Linux's strength has so far been seen mostly in consumer devices such as the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet, the Sony Mylo and the UMPC-like PepperPad, but Beers said that its ability to scale smoothly to almost any kind of hardware makes it ideal for industrial handhelds and telematics applications, technology that involves the automatic measurement and transmission of data from remote sources.

According to Kort, two bonus points for mobile Linux are that it is relatively inexpensive and gives users an "anti-Microsoft feeling."

Also, Jack Gold, founder and president of J. Gold Associates, a Northborough, Mass.-based research and advisory firm, pointed out that Linux is often a cost-effective choice for mobility.

"From a Linux perspective, the biggest thing it's got going for it is it's free," he said.

Gold added that a Linux-based platform also uses fewer resources on a device than a platform like Windows Mobile. That makes for lower processor and memory costs.

"Linux lets you paste in whatever you want," he said. "It's an a la carte menu. With Windows Mobile, you've got to take it all. Linux gives more leeway."

Also, running mobile Linux gives enterprises the ability to have one unified end-to-end solution from the servers to the desktop to the mobile device and so on, according to Bill Weinberg, senior technology analyst for the Open Source Development Labs.

"It makes it possible to do an entirely Linux-based end-to-end rollout," he said.

The Bad

But being cheap or free could also be a turnoff for enterprise-class software developers, who may have to spend extra money to put applications like SAP and Oracle onto handhelds, Kort said.

Series at a glance
BlackBerry

Windows Mobile

Palm OS

Symbian

Linux

J2ME

 Mobile Linux, as it stands now, doesn't necessarily support a wide array of enterprise-class applications, but Beers said that this, too, is starting to change.

"In its first phase of adoption by device makers, the focus was on leveraging the advantages of Linux to make handsets that were stable, functional and cost-effective, not to cultivate an open platform for third-party software developers," Beers said. "Most Linux smartphones to date do not allow installation of native applications -- only Java ME MIDIets.

"While they often ship with good personal information management features, full Web browsers, highly functional email clients and MS Office-compatible document viewers, you won't see the rich variety of software available on Palm OS, Windows Mobile or even Nokia's Symbian-based S60 platforms," Beers continued. "But this situation is changing very quickly and most analysts predict that in its next phase, Linux will quickly become a strong competitor to Windows Mobile and Symbian as a sophisticated application platform."

This coming second wave of Linux smartphones will ship with open software developer kits from such vendors as ACCESS/PalmSource, a la Mobile, Trolltech and Motorola, he said. It's unclear how deeply Linux will penetrate the smart device market or how strong the application ecosystem will be.

But recent data from Evans Data Corp. suggests that Linux has already surpassed the Palm OS, RIM and Brew platforms in terms of the number of wireless developers targeting the platform. Research also found that developer adoption is growing faster than that of any other major platform.

Still, Beers said, it's difficult to pinpoint which type of company is best suited to use mobile Linux, mostly because it has yet to really infiltrate the enterprise at the rate of other platforms.

"Linux has yet to establish its identity as a platform for enterprise mobility, as opposed to mass market consumer phones, so it's too early to talk about specific industries that it will suit," he said.

The ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP) will have backward compatibility with Palm OS, which is a traditional favorite in education and healthcare. But a number of the features that will make ALP attractive to the enterprise, such as remote management and built-in SQL relational database system, are still new to Palm OS.

Where Linux mobile will also fall short is that it will kick off with a smaller set of third-party applications than the incumbent platforms, Beers said. Mobile Linux must avoid being fragmented into several incompatible platforms to really make a splash.

"This is probably the biggest risk factor facing the growth of Linux, because a fragmented market will have difficulty generating strong brands and developer communities to challenge Microsoft," he said. "Thus the negatives surrounding Linux have little to do with its technical capabilities and everything to do with the social problem of establishing one or two strong leaders from a large pack of Linux contenders. There are various -- maybe too many -- Linux standards bodies working to establish standards to combat this fragmentation, but in the end the real standards may be set by the leaders that get early traction in the market."

Kort and Gold agreed.

"There is no consistency among flavors of Linux," Kort said. "You may be able to master Red Hat Linux but be ignorant when it comes to TrollTech Linux."

"Your Linux may not be the same as my Linux," Gold added. "It's not very clean."

Mobile Linux's biggest challenges as it tries to enter the enterprise are defining a point of commonality and making it a standards-based platform, Weinberg said.

The Indifferent

Many people assume that the fact that Linux is free means it has an enormous cost advantage over proprietary alternatives ... the cost picture is more complicated with more sophisticated smartphones.
David Beers
FounderPikesoft Mobile Computing

 While still in the whisper stage, there have been rumors that Palm has plans with Linux, though Palm has yet to make an official announcement. But Palm's operating system supplier, PalmSource, was acquired by ACCESS, a Japanese mobile software company. At the time, Palm said it was enthusiastic about a next-generation version that would use a Linux kernel for better multitasking and advanced wireless networking features. After that, however, there has been silence, and PalmSource has not mentioned its intentions with Linux again.

Kort questions whether Palm's release of a mobile Linux platform will be able to gain traction, however. Palm already offers Palm OS and Windows Mobile. Adding in a third may create too many cooks.

"I have some real strong doubts about it in the U.S.," he said.

Linux has taken off in Asian countries, especially China, but the U.S. has been somewhat slow to adopt. The open source character of Linux and its modular design have made it a springboard for developing alternative platforms to Symbian and Windows Mobile, but mostly for low-cost, mass-market phones. In North America, mobile carriers are typically more conservative than their Asian counterparts and will most likely hold out on mobile Linux until one or two leaders emerge from the pack. Beers said it appears that Palm and Motorola are the most likely candidates to develop mobile Linux smartphones for cautious Americans.

"Many people assume that the fact that Linux is free means it has an enormous cost advantage over proprietary alternatives, and this is true for relatively simple devices, but the cost picture is more complicated with more sophisticated smartphones," Beers said. "Integrating the hardware, kernel, services, middleware and applications is a formidable and risk-laden task, which is why mobile Linux vendors like TrollTech and ACCESS/PalmSource see good business opportunities in offering complete Linux stacks that are commercial products."

The Conclusion

Mobile Linux is still in too early a stage to really be considered by American enterprises, but as interest and available products both continue to grow, mobile Linux could find itself breaking out of the consumer market and infiltrating enterprise walls.

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 There are a few silver linings, Beers said, noting that Motorola recently sold 1 million Linux-powered smartphones in China, indicating that mobile Linux could be suited for enterprise mobile computing needs. And support for Microsoft Office documents is available on Motorola's Linux phone platform and is planned for the ALP, which is expected to be released by year's end.

"Integration with enterprise push email is a question mark but seems unlikely to be a stumbling block," Beers said. "In Japan, most high-end handsets, including business smartphones, will be running Linux within the next few years. In the U.S., Microsoft has a strong foothold in the enterprise that will be difficult to dislodge. But U.S. market leader Motorola has made very determined statements and commitments to power its primary smartphone operating system with Linux, which could do quite a bit to turn that tide."

Weinberg said that Linux's growth on the smartphone is an indication that it is starting to gather steam, but he said that right now it may still be too early for anyone other than application developers and phone manufacturers to see the true merits of a Linux-based mobile platform.

"It's probably not ready to take on an end-user value proposition just yet," he said. "It can deliver the end user a rich experience, but it's still of most interest to OEMs, ISVs and the like."

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