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Mobile handsets are dialing up Linux

Posted: 16 Aug 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:linux? os? hdtv? pc? dvr?

Although its victory has been fairly silent, Linux has achieved widespread adoption in consumer electronics devices ranging from Sony HDTVs and TiVo DVRs to home networking equipment from companies such as LinkSys and D-Link. Unlike PCs, where internal components are often exposed, Linux is buried inside the device with little visibility to the end-user. But the adoption is real.

Yet the real success story for Linux may be its adoption into the mobile space. Fueled by more powerful and efficient semiconductor products, today's mobile devices are rapidly increasing in capability and complexity. In particular, having begun to surpass the capabilities found in yesterday's PCs and outshipping them by a factor of more than 5-to-1, mobile handsets are emerging as the next client device. With this trend comes a number of problems, not the least of which is maturation.

The maturation of the mobile market is causing fierce competition between early and more recently established mobile-handset manufacturers. With market growth slowing, handset manufacturers are increasingly competing for replacement business. Consequently, manufacturers may choose either low-cost or feature leadership as a way to differentiate themselves. But in many cases, this trend has forced all to focus on optimizing development and bill-of-materials.

For operators, market maturation has led to increased focus on growing average revenue per user (ARPU) through supplemental services. But without clear standards, operators incur a huge cost and resource burden as they attempt to roll out new services onto a fragmented array of devices. To reduce fragmentation, mobile operators are increasingly driving specifications throughout the industry.

Freedom from commoditization

As handset manufacturers and mobile operators continue to build and deploy new features and services as a means of increasing their business in a maturing and competitive market, they are discovering that traditional proprietary development platforms no longer sufficiently meet the needs of their road maps. Also, market pressures are forcing handset manufacturers to focus on their value-add in an effort to control and lower costs.

Traditional proprietary operating systems stifle differentiation and make it costly and difficult to deliver the innovative services that mobile operators hope will increase ARPU growth.

With Linux, operators see the opportunity to directly influence the software platform and achieve the degree of control they believe is necessary to continue growing their businesses.

Linux provides operators with a malleable, open platform that can be tailored to meet their standards and specifications for avoiding fragmentation, while simultaneously being customizable and providing differentiation.

Other proprietary platforms offer little or no ability to drive differentiation, or standardization, leading to commoditization and fragmentation. Given its scalability, Linux is seen by operators as an opportunity to standardize platforms being deployed in their networks, reducing the amount of testing necessary to deploy applications and services, and thus reducing operating expenses.

Handset manufacturers face similar problems when looking to deliver the latest cutting-edge features out to the market. Unlike the limited-function operating systems built for resource-constrained, relatively basic mobile devices, Linux was designed with a highly scalable architecture that can be used in devices ranging from wristwatches to supercomputers.

Using Linux in their devices, mobile-handset manufacturers can deliver branded experiences to their users while addressing operator specifications and reducing their overall development and certification costs.

Thus, most handset manufacturers are beginning to view Linux as a universal solution that can be leveraged across a broad range of devices. It also allows them to plan out an aggressive and highly competitive road map for the foreseeable future.

Rich applications

As mobile handsets advance in their capabilities with more powerful semiconductor components and operating environments, they are also becoming miniature, yet fully functional computing devices. With this comes the necessity to deliver advanced applications and games to the market. However, with advanced capability also comes increased complexity and the need for enterprise-class development tools.

Fortunately, having grown out of the enterprise space, the Linux ecosystem is well-suited for the needs of advanced software development.

In addition to a large community of developers and a portfolio of pre-existing application software, many powerful development tools are available for the Linux platform, providing choice and flexibility to software developers. In particular, Eclipse-based development tools from various vendors have made software development for Linux even easier.

Eclipse provides a fully graphical development environment for developing and debugging software, and can easily be used on workstations running Linux, Solaris and Windows. Using Eclipse as a framework, software development tool vendors deliver a familiar software environment while focusing their resources on adding the most effective capabilities into their product offering.

Expensive, low-volume "smart phones" typically use separate application and baseband processors and include dedicated memory for each processor. Excess semiconductor parts add cost to the design and increase power usage, leading to decreased battery life. To make matters worse, the dedicated baseband processor typically adds the requirement of a second OS, decreasing development efficiency.

These high-end devices typically feature an application-focused OS and a hardened RTOS to handle the extreme response-time requirements of communicating between the protocol stack and the back-end infrastructure. Failing to meet response-time requirements leads to dropped calls, a behavior that is unacceptable to an operator whose customers will often blame the network rather than the device.

Recent developments in the Linux community have improved response time. These improvements have enabled optimized versions of the platform to meet the "hard real-time" requirements of baseband processing while also delivering rich application, gaming and multimedia capabilitiesall driven by a single processor. Using Linux in so-called "single chipset" designs allows handset manufacturers to deliver high-end functionality at reduced prices.

Because Linux is highly modular and fully open, handset makers can easily layer additional features and capabilities to create a range of differentiated devices addressing various market segments and device classes. This allows device manufacturers to streamline their internal development costs while maintaining architectural freedom and flexibility.

Maturation is driving the industry to seek creative new solutions. Operators are looking to deliver increasingly complex solutions at ever decreasing prices. In turn, operators are pushing these requirements onto handset vendors, which need to maximize their investment in their differentiating value-add while maintaining the flexibility to meet customer demands.

Linux provides a highly scalable platform that helps reduce fragmentation while providing the control and functionality necessary to prevent commoditization and enable the delivery of advanced application and data services.

- Jacob Lehrbaum

Product Manager, Mobile and Wireless

MontaVista Software Inc.

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