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CEO Interview: Havaard Nord, co-CEO of Trolltech

Jul 6, 2006 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 1 views

This interview with Trolltech Co-CEO Haavard Nord took place the day after Trolltech's IPO on the Oslo Stock Exchange. Nord candidly describes Trolltech's products, markets, and plans, which include broadening its phone software platform through one or more acquisitions. Enjoy . . . !

Q1. Your IPO went well, it appears.

A1 — Yes, it went pretty well. Yesterday was the big day. We had hoped to target Independence Day, in the spirit of open source, but that didn't really make sense, since U.S. investors were not working.

So yes, the IPO went well, given market conditions. It was a little smaller than what it could have been a couple of months ago, but not too bad.

Q2. We read that two-thirds of new Trolltech investors are Norwegian. Is it difficult for American investors to buy stocks listed on the Oslo Stock Exchange?

A2 — All the major U.S. brokers have access to the OSE. Today, with all the electronic trading, it's quite easy to invest. Also, we did have several qualified institutional investors in the U.S., although trading regulations do not permit me to say who they are.

Q3. How will Trolltech use the money raised by its IPO?

A3 — We are moving very fast in the embedded and mobile markets. We see a huge opportunity in cell phones. For example, a recent Gartner report showed Linux moving ahead and growing faster than any other smartphone OS, in 2005. This will get the attention of a lot of companies. And, we are the leader in providing Linux-based smartphone software.

So, we're looking at acquiring some key technologies to complement our product. We've been in a growth phase for the last 12 months. However, there are technologies in Qtopia that we do not have, and we want to give our customers a more complete solution.

You know, for Linux, one of the challenges is a relatively high degree of fragmentation, compared to Windows Mobile and Symbian. Those OSes are one-stop shops, and it's important for Linux to move towards that.

For some components, we will partner. Others, we may develop ourselves or acquire it. Trolltech is very much a “platforms” company.

Q4. What about a Linux kernel? Is Trolltech considering acquiring a commercial embedded Linux distributor?

A4 — I'm thinking that what's been happening lately is that more and more silicon vendors are acquiring kernel expertise, and are tweaking and optimizing Linux for their chips. It could be that business around the Linux kernel could turn into a pure service business. We are mainly an IP [intellectual property] licensing company. We would not wish to become too much of a service business. So, that's probably not one of the components we will look at acquiring.

Q5. Oh, interesting. Is Trolltech purely a product company, or does it offer some professional engineering services, such as software integration and customization?

A5 — We do provide some professional services, especially in Asia. Right now, we're building a group of professional service engineers in China under Karsten [Homann, who joined Trolltech last October from Siemens]. Karsten is creating a group to do basic services for our customers so they can bring phones to market faster. But services today are a tiny part of our business.

Q6. Can you give us a sense of how Qtopia Phone Edition is priced?

A6 — I can not really say, because pricing varies with volume. It ranges from sub-dollar amounts to a few dollars. We do try to put together a software stack that is extremely cost-competitive.

Q7. We've heard elsewhere about stacks in the $3 to $5 range from Trolltech competitors. Does that jibe with what you have heard?

A7 — We think two dollars is a good price today, and below two dollars in the future. Phone software is getting commoditized to some extent, and there are going to be very high volumes.

Q8. Who do you see as Trolltech's primary competitors in the mobile phone software space? PalmSource? MontaVista? A la Mobile?

A8 — Our main competition is really Windows. We have not seen very many Windows smartphones so far, but we'll see more this year and next year. Microsoft is very aggressive, stubborn, and determined, and they want to make an impact in this market.

MontaVista is not a competitor, so much as a partner. As for a la Mobile, they may turn out to be a partner. Access/PalmSource are giving messages that they are not really competing with us, but we'll have to wait until they bring a product to market to tell for sure.

Mobile phones are a very interesting business for some companies to be in. There are many companies trying to get in the Linux platform business. Only a small percentage may succeed, though.

Trolltech's fundamental technology is Qt (pronounced “cute”), and Qt has an open source community of literally hundreds of thousands of developers. Some 4,500 corporations license Qt for corporate applications. Commercial applications such as Google Earth and Adobe Photoshop Elements also use it. So, there is a whole community of applications written for the desktop that can move to Linux devices.

Opera did their browser using Qt, and that enabled them to move to mobile devices very quickly. Motorola used Qtopia Core in its newest Linux phones.

So, Trolltech owns technology with a huge community. Anyone coming into this market will have to build a community, and that will not be easy.

Q9. How many customers does Trolltech have for its Qtopia products for phones and embedded devices?

A9 — It changes all the time, but today, we are working with in total 118 manufacturers building devices, including 40 building phones. So you see actually the majority are not building phones, but music devices, VoIP phones, industrial, and medical devices.

One of the things we are trying to do with Qtopia is to position it for converged devices that integrate several different kinds of functions. Manufacturers appreciate the freedom that Qtopia gives them, not to be locked into building just a phone, but to innovate on top of the platform, and build crossed-over devices such as music phones. One of the main things that drives manufacturers to Linux is the capability to experiment and innovate. Phones is what we see today, and in the near term — say over the next 2-3 years — phones are going to produce the greatest numbers.

Q10. How many mobile phones have shipped to date with Trolltech technology inside?

A10 — A recent Gartner report found that 22 percent of the 49 million smartphones that shipped in 2005 were running Linux. So, that's very close to 11 million Linux smartphones.

Of those, about a third are based on Qtopia, or are Motorola phones [which use Qtopia Core]. Another two-thirds are NTT/DoCoMo phones from Panasonic and NEC [Panasonic and NEC implemented their own proprietary graphics stack].

Q11. Korean Linux phone stack vendor Mizi recently told us it planned to replace Qtopia with a lighter-weight, custom graphics stack, in order to target single-chip mobile phone designs. Will Trolltech create a lighter-weight product aimed at lower-cost, higher-volume phones?

A11 — They may have said that last year, in response to a concept release with a whole bunch of new features and functionality. If they have played with Qtopia 4.0, the focus there is on performance and size. It is able to run on 32MB of Flash and 32MB of RAM, which manufacturers tell us are reasonable amounts for high-volume designs.

Additionally, Qtopia 4.0 runs far faster than Qtopia 2, showing that we have been extremely successful with optimization. We have solved a lot of performance issues. They should consider taking a second look. We actually get pretty good feedback from our customers on our current products.

Have you used Motorola's A1200, or Ming phone?

Q12. No, but we've written about it.

A12 — I've been using that phone every day since February or March, and it's a totally beautiful phone. It takes 15 seconds to boot, and a few more to load the UI. That's three- to five-times faster than [smartphones based on] Windows or Blackberry.

Of course, a lot of the optimization has to do with the manufacturer. Some have more experience with Linux, and they use the right flash filesystem, and so forth. Generally, we see that companies get better with successive phones. Motorola's newest phones are really fast and usable, starting with the A800. The Rokr E2 is good, too. It has a 4GB SD card, and holds about 20 CDs of music.

Q13. Are you aware of any Linux phones that we have not covered, that use Trolltech technology?

A13 — Did you cover the Wistron NeWeb phone available through an MVNO in France?

Q14. The Neuf Twin? Yes, I think so.

A14 — Well, there are other recent customer design wins, and we will of course be able to mention those products in time. There are more design wins all the time.

We think Linux is going the right way. Linux use in phones grew 1,200 percent between 2004 and 2005. We made a bet on Linux in 1999, and now it is quickly becoming a dominant platform for phones. Our IPO will give us a stronger balance sheet, and enable us to do some acquisitions, and help make Linux even stronger in phones and other embedded markets in the future.

Q15. Thanks very much for your time, Haavard! And keep in touch.

About the interviewee — Haavard Nord co-founded Trolltech with Eirik Chambe-Eng in 1994, after starting the development of Qt, Trolltech's cross-platform toolkit. Haavard's contribution to Trolltech has primarily been through setting strategic direction and overseeing product development. He is a veteran of the software development industry, with experience in software research, development, and management. He graduated from the Norwegian Institute of Technology with an M.Sc. in Computer Science, and lives in Palo Alto with his wife and children.

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