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Linux on the go

According to one Linux vendor, the true value of open source goes far beyond the bottom line when it comes to mobile devices. In fact, it could be the panacea for running nearly any application across both mobile and fixed platforms.

Manufacturers of mobile devices like smartphones and PDAs are increasingly turning to Linux to power their products. Trolltech, a Norwegian company that makes graphical user interface (GUI) software, is on the forefront in that movement.

More than 50 companies are now developing or shipping Linux-based devices that use Trolltech's Qtopia graphical application platform software, including more than 20 mobile phones.

Qtopia, which the company bills as the first comprehensive application platform built for embedded Linux, is based on Qt, Trolltech's cross-platform C++ application framework. Developers use Qt to write applications that run natively on Windows, Linux, Unix, Mac OS X and embedded Linux. Qt is perhaps best known as the basis for the open source K Desktop Environment (KDE).

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In this interview, Trolltech co-founder and president Eirik Chambe-Eng talks about the newest update to the Qt application framework, Trolltech's dual licensing model and the progress that open source is making in the mobile device business and elsewhere.

Could you give a little background on Trolltech?

Eirik Chambe-Eng: Trolltech is a software company founded in Norway 11 years ago. Our first product, and still our flagship product, is called Qt. It's a software development technology that makes it possible for developers to create applications that run across all popular platforms … and our customers can do so with one source code base. We have a separate product for each platform, so the resulting applications are native in terms of look and feel, and in terms of speed and memory consumption. Our customers can, with one development team, develop software across several different platforms. Normally, you can only target one market at a time, or you have to have a pretty large development team to target several. So, that's the value-add we have.

Qtopia, which is built with Qt as a basis, is a complete platform for embedded devices running Linux like PDAs, mobile phones, consumer electronics devices, etc. We're going to move it over to version 4 of the Qt technology, and that's going to happen by the end of the year.

Your company has just released Qt version 4. What new functionality made it into the final cut of this product?

Chambe-Eng: One thing is that we're opening a new market by having a server-side version. Previously, our customers mostly created GUI applications. Now we have better support for things like threading and XML handling to create server-side software. There were also a lot of additions to the graphics part, so you can now do really modern type user interfaces with semi-transparency. You can [also] do animation in the user interface.

What should chief information officers know about the open source movement?

Chambe-Eng: Even if lower cost is an added bonus and is a good thing, that's not really the big benefit of the open source revolution. The big benefit is in terms of quality, it's in terms of security and it's in terms of future-proofing. You have access to the source code. With open source software, there are literally thousands of high quality developers looking at the entire source code on a daily basis. They will find security holes quickly and they will patch them in a very short time. Through the same mechanism, open source products stabilize very rapidly, much more rapidly than traditional software development methods. And those are very, very important and valuable advantages of open source.

How will open source change selling models in the future?

Chambe-Eng: The first generation of business models based on open source was based on support. We see ourselves as a second-generation open source company. We use a dual licensing model for our software.

To make a long story short, we're saying that if you're running a business, if you're doing something commercial, then you'll have to pay a normal license fee to use our software. If you're making open source software and you're giving away your software to the open source community, then you can use it for free. That model works very well for us. We feel that it's the best of both worlds. We get all the advantages of quality and security and future-proofing for our customers. At the same time, we get a good revenue stream, which makes it possible for us to have a pretty large development team develop the core parts of our products.

Do you think that open source will lead to less money being spent on software marketing and more on software development? Chambe-Eng: Not necessarily. I can't see that there is going to be any big change. I think the word-of-mouth type of marketing, which is one advantage you get with an open source model, is a supplement to the traditional sales and marketing methods. I think it's just going to boost sales for businesses like ours. But we still need to reach customers through traditional channels.

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