Could the Mobile Phone be the Next PC?
Will 2007 be the year for mass adoption of Linux in smart phones? This question is the one on everyone’s minds here at the inaugural Open Source in Mobile Event. Taking place in Amsterdam today and tomorrow, this event brings together service providers, carriers, software and hardware vendors, ISVs and everyone else involved in the open source in mobile community. Day one just concluded and since I’m here I thought I’d share some observations that caught my attention.
Needless to say, as this is the inaugural event, my expectations were low. Much to my surprise though, the event has been well attended with over 100 paying attendees. Worth noting to anyone who doesn’t believe Linux will have an impact on the mobile phone market: given the level of attendees participating, I feel pretty safe in concluding that manufacturers are taking the opportunity in mobile Linux very seriously.
The conference topics mainly centered on business models, technology, and monetizing open source in Mobile. The speaker list included impressive representation from both well-established and emerging names in the industry. Some of the larger companies we heard from today included British Telecom, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Sun and Vodafone.
After a quick scan of the audience, there appeared to be a lot more suits and ties than t-shirts. There were even a few attorneys on hand soaking in the data. Good thing because most of the questions from the audience dealt with sticky licensing issues. In particular Sun announced the open sourcing of Java ME, but could not explain under what license(s) it would be put into open source.
Now that you have the background details, let me cut to the chase with my takeaway observations:
Number One: Event Endorsement by the Open Source Gnome Project
I’ve been working in the embedded Linux space for nearly 6 years and have a lot of conferences under my belt; many that specifically address the mobile Linux space. One thing struck me right away that was noticeably different about this conference was that it was endorsed by the open source Gnome project. While Gnome is certainly a leading Linux desktop interface, this conference marks the first time I’ve ever seen or heard a desktop Linux.org endorse an open source mobile event. Could this step mean a trend is starting in the mobile phone space? Many of the comments I heard today would indicate that companies are already thinking this option through. Could the mobile phone be the next PC? Interestingly, Motorola positioned the future mobile phone as becoming “the remote control for life.” This take certainly indicates that the MOT team thinks mobile phones will replace all other devices including cameras, watches, cell phones, MP3 players and possibly even the PC. I’ll be keeping my eye on this potential trend.
Number Two: Widespread Discussion on Fragmentation of Open Source for Mobile Solutions
There are many niche players attempting to make their mark as key components of the software stack and several of them were in attendance today. One of the key issues discussed over and over again was the fragmentation that exists with open source for mobile solutions. When we talk about open source, most people think about the kernel. But really, the kernel is not where the fragmentation problem exists. Because the kernel is pretty straightforward and compatible, it won’t make that much difference if a phone is using 2.6.10 or 2.6.18. The real fragmentation issue is with the application services layer that sits on top of the Linux OS. This point was obvious as there were at least three different “app services layer” vendors represented at the event. The challenge developers face is which graphical interface will they write to? Will there be a JVM and whose version will it be? What audio interfaces do they use? This fragmentation will hinder fast adoption of open source for mobile and the development of universal and portable applications that can run on any phone in any network. This issue is one of the biggest challenges open source in mobile faces compared to the closed environments of Microsoft and Symbian.
Number Three: First Three Presenters Were All Members of the “X” Foundation
Another interesting observation was that the first three presenters, Vodafone, Panasonic and Motorola, are all members of the “X” foundation. This new foundation was announced last summer and consists of handset manufacturers and service providers. The foundation’s goal is to drive to a single common platform for open source in mobile phones. Ironically, this .org is attempting to address the usage of open source for mobile solutions, and yet, they themselves are not an “open” organization. Membership and contribution to the foundation is limited and closed to the community at this time. They did indicate it would be opened to other companies in the future. But why keep it closed? One of the presenters mentioned that they wanted to keep membership small and limited to “companies that really understood the whole problem.” Are service providers and handset manufacturers the open source experts and thus the only ones qualified to drive the adoption of open source solutions? Independent of this or any other group defining a standards-based open source stack, adoption is already happening. More than 20 million Linux-based phones are out there to prove that adoption is happening. One of the things that really interests me about the X foundation is that they don’t want to spend time on standards. They just want to submit code. One presenter even went as far to say that they are “bored” with standards. While I completely agree that standards specifications take to long to develop, they are still needed. Without them, we will have another point solution that cannot scale. If we only ‘submit code’ and do not have an interoperable standard in mind, then we are really not solving the interoperability problem and scalability problem.
Number Four: Significant Efforts Driving Open Source for Mobile Are Underway
The final takeaway and big message of the day was that there are significant efforts going on and these efforts are driving open source for mobile phones. Momentum is increasing. Many of the presenters today indicated that 2007 will be the year for open source in mobile phones. I’m on board with this assumption. However, I believe mobile phones will not be 100% open source. While we did hear from one vendor, First International Computer (FIC), that they now have a 100% open source stack with the exception of a communications driver or two, almost everyone unanimously agreed that the mobile phone solution will be a hybrid of both open and proprietary components built on a Linux platform. Or, in the case of Nokia, there may be open source applications that run on top of a closed operating environment. One thing that everyone agrees with? Open source is a growing influence on mobile phones and will have an even bigger impact on the solution in the future.