Opportunities for the open source Linux operating system in the mobile device market was a prominent theme of the keynote presentations at the Linux Collaboration Summit on Wednesday.
Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin discussed the value that Linux can bring to handset makers and mobile carriers, empowering them to build their own custom platforms and developer ecosystems around a common base of open Linux technology. Linux doesn't just reduce costs, says Zemlin, it also allows adopters in the mobile market to retain control over their products, obviating the need to make concessions to a platform vendor.
Last year, Zemlin claimed that Linux would eventually become the dominant operating system for consumer electronics, due to its flexibility and lack of licensing costs. Indeed, Linux has gained a tremendous amount of traction in the consumer electronics market and can be found on a wide range of popular products including the TiVo and Kindle. Despite the rapidly-growing prominence of Linux in the mobile and embedded space, there are still a number of challenges that threaten its prospects of dominance.
Earlier this year, Zemlin acknowledged that Linux-based platforms still fall short of delivering a user experience that can truly compete with the "magic" that emanates from Cupertino. He has been rallying Linux's deep-pocketed corporate allies to start collaborating better in their efforts to boost Linux's design quality and usability so that the open source operating system can match Apple's prowess in those areas.
Despite its shortcomings, he believes that Linux still wins in several areas, particularly cost and openness. During his Linux Collaboration Summit keynote, he attempted to humorously highlight the differences in philosophy between open source software and Apple's products by displaying two sets of video clips. The first set of clips featured Steve Jobs describing the iPad, but it was cut so that it was just a series of generic superlative phrases. The second set of clips showed Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman speaking at a conference, but it was edited to show Stallman saying the word "freedom" over and over.
Zemlin was trying to convey the impression that Apple's device platform is a gilded cage while casting Linux as an instrument of empowerment and liberation. Although Apple's platform is indeed highly restrictive, I think that his use of the Stallman clips was somewhat misleading. Because Stallman is a vocal critic of proprietary firmware and other similar kinds of pragmatic compromises, it is highly unlikely that he would ever endorse the mainstream mobile Linux platforms that are developed by the Linux Foundation's most prominent corporate members.
The MeeGo project, which brings together Intel and Nokia's mobile Linux technology, aims to provide a vendor-neutral platform that is suitable for a variety of different mobile form factors and hardware architectures. The key participants have invited the Linux Foundation to play a role in managing the collaborative ecosystem around the platform. It is closely aligned with the upstream kernel community and the broader Linux software ecosystem.
MeeGo is attracting a lot of interest and is on a trajectory to become the industry standard platform for mobile and embedded Linux computing. Its significance was highly visible at the Linux Collaboration Summit. Ari Jaaksi, Nokia's vice president of MeeGo devices, expressed enthusiasm for MeeGo's future. Intel and Nokia are working together to define the future of the MeeGo platform, but they aren't doing it in a vacuum. MeeGo is open today, he says, so that others can participate and become a part of the process.
Intel and Nokia recently touted a roster of 27 partners that have joined the project. It's a highly diverse group that includes BMW, EA Mobile, Novell, Asus, and many others. Some companies will be delivering MeeGo-powered hardware and others will be producing third-party software or specialized derivatives.
According to Jaaksi, Nokia is currently developing new smartphones that are designed to run the MeeGo operating system. Intel is working with hardware makers to ensure that MeeGo is suitable for Atom-based netbooks and smartphones. At the Intel Developer Forum in Beijing, Intel showed off the latest updates to its netbook user interface. The Clutter-based shell that Intel developed for Moblin will still be used in MeeGo despite the fact that the competing Qt framework was selected as MeeGo's default user interface toolkit. It appears as though Gtk+ and Clutter will still play a role in the MeeGo user experience.
Although the fabled Year of the Linux Desktop remains elusive, Linux is clearly a very significant player in the mobile space. The emergence of a broad vendor-neutral Linux platform initiatives like MeeGo is a sign that mobile Linux is maturing. The Linux Foundation's role in facilitating collaboration between the chief participants is also becoming increasingly important as more parties come to the table with the aim of contributing.
Source: ars technica