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Platform group's goal: Unify Linux for handsets

Posted: 01 Aug 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:John Walko? Yoshiko Hara? Linux-based reference platform? Motorola? NEC?

Last June's announcement of an effort to create an open, Linux-based reference platform for handsets left industry watchers debating whether the result will be hard-won cohesion or further fragmentation of the Linux development community for mobile applications.

Handset makers Motorola, NEC, Samsung Electronics and Panasonic have joined with telecom operators NTT Docomo and Vodafone in a bid to create a reference implementation built around a consistent set of Linux APIs for use by manufacturers and tool developers. The aim is to foster a true developer community around mobile applications for Linux, and to bring chipset makers, tool suppliers and other OEMs and operators on board.

While the participants are all heavy hitters and their aim is lofty, the feeling among some is that the announcement raises more questions than it answers.

"It is one thing to say 'Let's set a foundation'to do it is another matter," said David Wood, executive VP for research at Symbian Software Ltd. "Creating software for increasingly complex mobile devices is no easy task, and it can be a rocky road to ensure it's certified and fit for purpose, as we have found from experience."

Of course, Wood has a vested interest in how this latest stab at formalizing an open Linux implementation pans out. Symbian currently dominates the OS market for mobiles. Microsoft Corp., for its part, has garnered some headline-grabbing design wins for Windows Mobile, but has yet to make volume shipments.

Linux has been playing catch-up because mobile devices using the open-source software have typically been built to unique specifications, splintering the market.

Kimio Jono, chief engineer at NEC's mobile software operation unit, acknowledged that the fragmentation issue hits home for the six companies looking to hammer out a common reference platform. NEC, Panasonic and NTT Docomo have their own Linux implementation, called mobile-phone-oriented application platform Linux (Moap-L). Samsung uses another Linux implementation and Motorola yet another. One of the group's first orders of business, Jono said, is "aligning all three."

Alliance plans
The alliance is so new that it doesn't have a name yet, but it has already put in place five technical working groups and one commercial group, said Seiji Maruyama, senior director of the development strategy group for Docomo's consumer equipment development department. The group intends to complete its framework by year's end and to open the platform to other mobile industry players after that, he said. Handsets based on the reference design are expected to roll in 2007.

But Symbian's Wood questioned whether the group will be able to overcome the fragmentation at the upper levels of the Linux OS fast enough to keep to its aggressive timetable. He also wondered how the partners might sort out the underlying IP rights questions, asserting that "a lack of a transparent mechanism for sharing IP" has hampered earlier Linux initiatives in the mobile market.

While Wood asserted that Symbian is not "concerned at this stage" about the nascent Linux effort, neither is it complacent. "We will continue to build on our existing momentum," he said, "working with our developer community to improve the performance and functionality of the OS/9 and its emerging variants."

Richard Windsor, a senior analyst at Nomura Securities, said that Symbian and Microsoft may face a growing challenge from Linux efforts, "but it is going to take some time coming. Linux proponents really need to address the fragmentation issue head-on, the costs involved, and then catch up technologically."

But the fact that both Docomo and Vodafone have thrown their weight behind the effort gives Tomihisa Kamada, executive VP and CTO at Access Co., confidence in its success. That "unprecedented" backing, he said, suggests a sense of urgency among carriers "to accelerate the development of application software for their mobile services."

While the partners haven't specified which software layers they intend to standardize, Kamada speculated the work will target "not the API between the Linux kernel and middleware, but the middleware layer itself." This is significant, he said, because today, "mobile handset manufacturers can't just go out, buy and plug in software components to make any mobile applications work on Linux.

"On the other hand, Linux only offers a kernel," Kamada said. A full set of software layers "starting from the Linux kernel to the middleware" isn't available; "even MontaVista does not provide the application layers." Thus, he said, it would make sense for the partners to address that lack.

Access has fought its own battles with Linux fragmentation. After acquiring Palm Source Inc. last year, the Japanese company merged the Linux-based Palm OS with its own browser technology. The result, released this year, was the Access Linux Platform for mobile phones. Asked about the proliferation of Linux initiatives for mobile markets, Kamada acknowledged the concerns but said, "the very nature of an open-source community in Linux will help. We are not out to destroy others. For one, we at Access are ready to work with the new consortium."

Windows Mobile challenge
NEC and Panasonic have also spent considerable resources implementing Linux on their respective phone platforms. But "we don't need to keep all the software we developed internally" proprietary, NEC's Jono said. "More importantly, we need a common platform."

Senior analyst Tony Cripps at consultancy group Ovum noted that operators are increasingly keen to challenge the hegemony of commercial handset platforms such as Windows Mobile and Nokia's Symbian-based S60. Cripps is fairly upbeat about the prospects for the initiative. "If the foundation gets its sums right, it could have a bigger impact than the ongoing Linux Phone Standards Forum or the Open Source Development Labs-sponsored Mobile Linux Initiative. It does appear to be the most goal-oriented and commercially focused effort," he said.

Handset target: 2007
Cripps has discussed the initiative with Vodafone and Motorola, and said he considers it "safe to assume that the initial specification for the platform, including application layer and kernel, is more or less fixed. After all, they are talking of handsets being available in the second half of 2007, and typically a model takes about 18 months of design time."

Docomo will probably take the lead at the operators' level, Cripps said, but "the participation of Vodafone should not be underestimated. They are still the leading global operator, with huge influence on handset makers, and if they come out so openly and stake their reputation on the platform, the message is they want to see two platforms out there, the S60 and one based on Linux."

That should spur other operators to follow suit, Cripps said, "since they are desperate to narrow down the number of handset options they need to support." The goal is to become more nimble in rolling out novel services.

Docomo, for its part, is working with Fujitsu Ltd to develop a Symbian-based Moap-S platform along the lines of Moap-L. But Docomo's Maruyama declined to say whether the company will continue to pursue a dual-platform strategy.

Moap-L's use of MontaVista software for the kernel and core services could suggest the path the new group will take for its kernel. Thus far, the group hasn't revealed that detail. "We recognize there are several kernel suppliers," said Jono of NEC, which partnered with Docomo and Panasonic on Moap-L. "But we don't think that matters much."

Oren Teich, director of marketing at MontaVista, told EE Times his company is "eager to see what the next steps will be from this group. Some of the biggest pieces are still missing, but I would say it is more than vaporware... naturally we are putting out feelers, and we are keen to participate if and when they open up."

MontaVista launched its own initiative, the Mobilinux Open Framework Program, in February 2005. It differs in aim from the latest effort, promoting embedded Linux as an open, extensible software platform consisting of prequalified third-party products.

- John Walko, Yoshiko Hara
EE Times




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