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2009: A breakthrough year for mobile Linux

Dec 30, 2009 — by Eric Brown — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 5 views

In 2009, mobile consumer devices including netbooks, e-readers, tablets, MIDs, PMPs, and mobile phones were increasingly dominated by embedded Linux or the Linux-based Android. LinuxDevices presents four updated showcases of story summaries for netbooks, phones, and other portable devices, recalls 2009 highlights ranging from the Kindle to the Droid, and looks in on new rumors about the Google Nexus One and Chrome OS netbook design.

For almost a decade, LinuxDevices has presented its LinuxDevices Showcase guides, offering handy summaries of our stories that introduce new devices that use embedded Linux. Organized by category of device in reverse chronological order, the guides include mobile phones, netbooks, MIDs, PDAs, audio and video gear, networking equipment, robots, and much more.

We have recently updated four Showcase guides covering some of the hottest four categories in embedded Linux:

Not surprisingly considering the profusion of hybrid designs that have emerged over the last year in mobile consumer devices, we often found it difficult to determine which category was appropriate for a given product. By and large, we used screen size as our measure, although the vendor's chosen nomenclature was also given consideration, as was the intended use.

Typically, we defined netbooks as falling into the 7- to 12-inch display category. MIDs, UMPCs, and tablets range from about 4.5 to 7 inches, although larger screen sizes, more closely aligned with netbooks, were allowed in the tablet category. Handhelds and mobile phones are typically below 4.5 inches, with the two distinguished from each other primarily by the presence of cellular voice capability.

The following is a quick look back at the 2009 highlights in each of these categories. Links to specific products mentioned here may be found in the appropriate showcase guides linked to above. 

Mobile phones

Linux has owned a modest share of the mobile phone market for years, with Motorola leading the way. In 2009, however, not only did the Linux-based Android operating system arrive with a major splash, but other new flavors of mobile Linux emerged, including most notably, Palm's WebOS, which appeared on Palm's new Palm Pre (pictured at right) and Palm Pixi phones. After a promising start, the buzz over the Pre seemed to be washed over by a flood of Android products, but on the strength of the innovative WebOS, Palm still has a shot at being a smartphone contender.

Linux also emerged in the Garmin-Asus distro found in the Nuvifone G60, as well as Nokia's N900 cellular-enabled Maemo Linux phone, that company's first Linux handset. The cellular-enabled heir to both the Maemo-based N800 Internet Tablets and Nokia's Symbian-based N97 smartphone, the N900 will be followed by a second Maemo smartphone in 2010, according to Nokia. 

A growing number of phones adhering to the LiMo Foundation's LiMo spec also emerged in 2009. In addition to the arrival of new mid-range LiMo models for the Asian market from Motorola, Panasonic, and NEC, we saw Samsung and Vodafone team up on their 360 H1 and M1 phones, both of which comply with the new LiMo R2 spec. What appears to be an even more impressive R2-based phone — the First Else (pictured at left) — was demonstrated late in the year by Emblaze Mobile.

But make no mistake about it: In 2009, the big story in Linux phones — and all phones for that matter — was the open source, Google-sponsored Android platform. Although the first Android phone, HTC's G1, shipped in late 2008, the market didn't really take off until last summer when Android 1.5 arrived along with more consumer-oriented phones like HTC's Magic, MyTouch 3G, and Hero.

By fall, Motorola and Samsung were both heavily invested in Android, with a variety of new handsets. Samsung, which had earlier offered an I7500 Android phone in Europe, followed up with the Behold II, the Moment, and the Galaxy Spica I5700, and more Samsung Android phones are on the way.

Struggling Motorola gambled everything on Android, moving away from LiMo and Windows Mobile and abandoning its earlier Linux-based MotoMAGX platform. Its first Android phone — the Cliq — was promising, in large part due to its MotoBlur social networking UI stack. Yet, the company really hit a home run with the later Droid by Motorola (pictured at right). Not only did the Droid combine a top-notch hardware design with the new Android 2.0, but it was marketed to the max by the largest carrier in the U.S., Verizon Wireless.

According to a story in GigaOM this week, the Droid by Motorola is on track to sell a million units this year. The story also reported on a Flurry Analytics survey estimating that Christmas Day downloads on Android Marketplace were dominated by the Droid, which represented some 49 percent of all Android downloads.

Also in the fourth quarter, other intriguing new Android smartphones were announced, including the LG Eve, the Acer Liquid, and the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 (pictured at left), just to name a few. Many more Android phones are on the way in 2010, with perhaps the most anticipated model coming from Google itself.

According to a story in our sister publication, eWEEK, Google is likely to announce its Google-branded, Nexus One phone next week on Jan. 5. Another eWEEK story rounds up the rumors on the Nexus One phone, pointing to a Gizmodo story that claims the phone runs the new Android 2.1 on a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Gizmodo was also said to have noted that the phone would sell for $530 unlocked or $180 from T-Mobile with a two-year contract.

If so, the idea of a Google-branded Android phone may not be as controversial as originally considered. The phone is said to be built by Google partner HTC, which offers most of the competing T-Mobile Android phones.

Linux handhelds

In 2009, consumer Linux handheld devices, such as portable media players (PMPs), personal navigation devices (PNDs), and PDAs continued to be overshadowed by high-end smartphones, which increasingly incorporate much of the same functionality. The Droid by Motorola, for example, includes Google's Android 2.0-based Google Maps Navigation app, which largely does the job of dedicated PNDs like the Linux-based Garmin Nuvi 860, and Garmin itself is spinning its Garmin-Asus Nuvifone G60 as a Nuvi in a phone. 

In the realm of media, there seemed to be fewer new handheld PMPs, compared to last year. This is probably because the ability to listen to music or watch videos is now built into most high-end smartphones, not to mention most multipurpose MIDs, tablets, and netbooks. We have included in this category a few PMPs with larger screens such as the Archos 5, which border on being MIDs or tablets, but still primarily reflect a PMP identity. This year, the latter came out in an Android version (pictured above, at right), one of the first of many portable devices that are expected to embrace Android over the next few years. 

One interesting newcomer in the handheld PMP market is the Zii Egg device from Creative Technology subsidiary ZiiLabs. Based on a homegrown, dual ARM-core "ZMS-05" system-on-chip (SoC), the Zii Egg (pictured at left) offers a 3.5-inch display supporting 1080p HD video, plus an HD video camera, WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth. The device runs ZiiLabs' "Plaszma" Linux distribution, with an optional Android installation also available. (As a sign of the times, however, ZiiLabs quickly followed up with a Zii Trinity smartphone that offers much the same functionality.)

Meanwhile, Linux continues to shine in the often ruggedized, PDA-oriented handhelds used in vertical markets like industrial, transportation, and point-of-sale settings. Even here, Android is making a stand, with SDG Systems introducing an Android version of Tripod Data Systems' ruggedized Trimble Nomad PDA.

Linux MID, UMPCs, e-readers, and tablets

In 2009, it became clear that the expected flood of Intel Atom-based mobile Internet devices (MIDs) running Moblin was in reality more like a burbling brook. New Linux-based mini-tablets with the typical 4- to 5-inch MID display size did appear in 2009, mostly built in Asia for local consumers. Yet, many of these were not based on the Atom, but rather used more power-efficient ARM processors. Of these, Android was sometimes the chosen operating system over other Linux distributions. (As for x86 Moblin-based MIDs, Intel and its hardware partners plan to reload with new devices arriving next fall based on its more power-efficient Moorestown processor.)

Ubuntu Linux was a common choice for the ARM-based MIDs, and at least one device, the Optima OP5-E (pictured at right), runs Nokia's Maemo Linux. The OP5-E is equipped with an ARM/XScale 806MHz PXA320 processor from Marvell, and offers a 4.3-inch, 800 x 480 touchscreen, 3.2-megapixel camera, 3G, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, and an eight-hour battery. 

Of greater interest to consumers in North America was the category of tablet-like e-book readers, or e-readers. Led by Amazon's popular, Linux-based Kindle 2 (pictured at left), which shipped in March, the e-reader market was quickly populated by a variety of new entries, many from start-ups.

Later in the year, three intriguing, dual-display Android e-reader models were announced: the Barnes & Noble Nook (right), the Spring Design Alex, and the Entourage Systems Entourage Edge. Each of the devices combine the typical E Ink EPD grayscale display with a secondary color Android screen. In the case of the Alex and the Edge, the color screen can be used as a general purpose Android interface and web browser. 

Meanwhile, an emerging category is expected to dominate the news at next month's CES show: larger, keyboard-free tablet (or "slate") devices that are similar in some ways to e-readers, MIDs, and in some cases, even netbooks. One interesting, voice-enabled entry arrived in October from AdelaVoice, based on SmartDevices' ARM11-based SmartQ7 reference design. Tuned to social networking sites, the Lighthouse SQ7 (left) offers a 7-inch, 800 x 480 touchscreen, 128MB of RAM, 1GB of flash, WiFi, and an Ubuntu Linux-based interface with voice-enabled Facebook and Twitter updates. 

No commercial products have arrived, as far as we know, from the major "smartbook" push announced by Qualcomm and Freescale in June. The initiative seeks to establish a new category of ARM Cortex-A8 based clamshell and tablet devices, filling the space between MIDs and UMPCs on the one hand and netbooks on the other. More is expected to be heard at CES about smartbooks that are based either on Qualcomm's Snapdragon or Freescale's i.MX515 processors. (One exception to the above might be the Sharp NetWalker PC-Z1 which shipped this fall, appearing much like the old Zaurus clamshell, but running on the powerful i.MX515.)

Linux Netbooks

Recession-plagued 2009 was not kind to computer sales, except for one thriving category: mini-notebooks, typically selling for under $400. According to DisplaySearch, netbook shipments are expected to total 33.3 million units by year's end, for a year-over-year growth of 103 percent. This is expected to slow to less than 20 percent in 2010, but only due to the emergence of a new breed of notebook computers with ultra-low voltage processors and sub-$500 price points that blur the lines with netbooks, according to the research firm.

In the U.S., netbooks are primarily based on Intel's Atom processor and most run Windows XP, and now, Windows 7. However, ABI Research recently released a study claiming that the Linux share of 2009 netbook sales was larger than expected — and much larger than the 7 percent figure claimed by Microsoft. According to ABI, Linux will represent 32 percent of netbook sales in 2009, and will overtake Windows on netbooks by 2013, largely due to sales of ARM-based netbooks in less-developed countries.

In 2009, we saw a number of new ARM-based models, few of which we are likely to see on the shelf at Best Buy anytime soon. Most of these run Linux, typically Ubuntu, but some also offer Android. The ARM netbooks are notable for long battery life and low prices. For example, Cherrypal recently announced its "Africa" netbook (at right) with a $99 pricetag. 

While a number of major manufacturers of Intel Atom-based netbooks retreated from Linux in 2009, Dell, HP, and a few other vendors have continued to offer Linux models. Dell in particular found success with the Linux version of the Dell Inspiron Mini 10 (left).

Acer, which along with Asus helped push the concept of the Linux netbook in 2008, only to abandon Linux, returned to the open source OS in a roundabout way in 2009 when it introduced an Android-based model. Running on an Atom N280, the netbook offers a 10.1-inch WSVGA display, gesture-enabled touchpad, a multi-card memory reader, and a 160GB SATA hard disk drive. However, Android is used primarily as a fast-boot secondary operating system, running side by side with Windows 7. 

By the time Acer announced the awkwardly named Acer Aspire AOD250-1613 (pictured at right), however, several other Android-only netbooks had already shipped from smaller vendors. The first appears to have been the Skytone Alpha 680, which runs on a 533MHz Freescale i.MX31 SoC.

More Android netbooks will appear in 2010, but primarily on the low end, merging into smartbook territory. On the high end, Google has another idea: Chrome OS. The search giant released portions of this cloud-based, open- source Linux operating system in November, and the first Chrome OS netbooks are expected to arrive in 4Q 2010.

This week, several reports have claimed that Google is preparing to launch its own Google-branded netbook running Chrome OS next fall. According to IBTimes, for example, the Google netbook will run on an unnamed ARM processor and Nvidia Tegra chipset, and offer a 10.1-inch "TFT HD-ready multi-touch display." Other specs listed include a 64GB SSD, 2GB RAM, WiFi, 3G, Bluetooth, Ethernet, USB ports, webcam, 3.5mm audio jack, and a multi-card reader.

In 2010, many netbook vendors will adopt Intel's more integrated N450 ("Pineview") version of the Intel Atom. The N450 offers integrated graphics, saving vendors from having to add a separate southbridge chip.

Meanwhile, new ARM Cortex-A8 based SoCs will continue to emerge along with processors based on the faster, multi-core ready Cortex-A9 ARM core, which is expected to compete more directly with the Atom on higher-end netbooks.


The GigaOM story on the Droid sales and downloads may be found here.

The eWEEK story on the upcoming Nexus One announcement should be here, and their story on the Nexus One rumors should be here.

The IBTimes story on the Google Chrome OS netbook should be here.

The four new updated Showcase guides may be found in the links below.

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