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LiMo and Android take different tacks to capture mobile market with Linux

Android and LiMo both want to boot up Linux on your cell phone, but there the similarities end.

Next year might be the year of Linux on the handset, but the two highest-profile mobile Linux projects disagree sharply on how it will succeed, with LiMo providing feature phone middleware with custom interfaces and Android seeking to build a complete, standardized smartphone experience.

Android, developed by Google and the Open Handset Alliance, will bring to bear a complete software stack, from the Linux kernel to an open source graphical user interface (GUI) and a voice-recognition package.  

LiMo, short for Linux Mobile, is less ambitious. The LiMo Foundation, which includes big names like Motorola, Samsung and now Verizon, is focused solely on the middleware, allowing individual manufacturers and other third parties to develop their own -- presumably proprietary -- user interfaces and dictate phone functionality.

Carriers and phone manufacturers are hoping that open source can break into a mobile platform market dominated by Microsoft, RIM, Symbian, and now Apple, giving manufacturers and carriers an easy way to directly implement custom features on top of the base mobile platform.

"The last thing you want, as a carrier, is to be tied to Symbian or Microsoft," said Stuart Carlaw, vice president of market research firm ABI Research. "You end up relying on the agenda of a single company to drive the industry forward."

The LiMo and Android projects could offer carriers and handset manufacturers a way to add their own customizations without having to rebuild such basic functions as how to handle a text message and without having to pay steep licensing fees for proprietary systems. That increased flexibility could spark more competitive innovation by mobile Linux's adopters, Carlaw said.

"Linux is a way of keeping others on their feet," he said. Competitors might want to get on their feet and start running. Carlaw recently published research which estimated that almost 20% of midlevel and high-end mobile devices will run some form of Linux by 2013, a significant gain from the roughly 7% of the market they have today, which includes phones like the Motorola RAZR 2.

Initially, the two projects will be aiming to appear on very different devices, driven by different strategies.

Android will debut as a top-of-the-line smartphone operating system, complete with a slick interface and a pool of useful, innovative applications available on Day 1. By contrast, LiMo is taking aim first at the feature phone market, leaving open the possibility of LiMo-based smartphones in the future.

Google has put a lot of effort into raising the Android's public profile and ensuring a robust third-party environment on a polished platform.

"We're focused on building a complete product," said Rich Miner, Google's vice president for mobile. "Everything else that you need to build a great handset, like databases, video and audio codexes, camera interfaces, Web browser code, speech recognition and middleware … all of that software is what we're packaging into Android."

Applications for one device will be cross-compatible with other Android phones, and most Android phone GUIs will probably have a very similar look and feel. The Android team is intent on setting a single standard.

"[Mobile] Linux won't succeed if there's multiple Linux [based distributions]," Miner said. He hopes to see mobile Linux distributions drop to "a very small number, ultimately perhaps one."

LiMo, on the other hand, is taking the thousand-flowers-bloom approach. While the framework doesn't include the top-to-bottom components Android has, it provides a solid base from which to build and gives vendors a chance to shape the experience to fit the phone.

"I think our sweet spot is in the high-end feature phones," said Andrew Shikiar, director of global marketing for the LiMo Foundation.

LiMo is also taking a different branding approach -- pitched mainly to manufacturers and operators as a way to differentiate.

"We're not planning on advancing it as a strong consumer brand," Shikiar said. Instead, the LiMo middleware will be almost invisible to the end user, much as the embedded Linux is almost invisible to a TiVo user. Of the 17 LiMo-based devices previewed at this year's Mobile World Congress, only one had "LiMo" in the name, while many used unique, proprietary media interfaces that would not be part of the LiMo platform as their selling point.

Openness is a process, Shikiar said, particularly as telecom providers try to kick-start their business models to succeed in the new environment.

"The landscape is changing," he said. "Ultimately, I think the industry on the whole will work through these issues."

The first wave of LiMo phones will resemble what's available today, Shikiar said, and they are likely to be very much locked down, but operators have finally acknowledged that openness is the future, and it won't be long before more open LiMo phones, with cross-compatible application platforms, hit the market.

It's this latter approach, which has so far been very carrier-centric, that Carlaw thinks will be most successful.

"In a year's time, you'll have a LiMo-based operating system operating on tens of millions of phones in Japan," Carlaw said. From there, he said, LiMo phones should spread quickly to Europe and North America, driven by carriers embracing the ability to quickly brand their phones and enable carrier-driven features that can help differentiate them in the market and sell added services.

Carlaw also said he likes the fact that LiMo is powering a variety of phones for a variety of tastes, a healthy fragmentation that could help it penetrate a variety of market segments.

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