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Article: Opinion: Mobile Linux is not about free software

Sep 25, 2007 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 2 views

Foreword: This guest column posits six causes for Linux's meteoric rise in popularity among handset manufacturers. Author Andreas Constantinou, founder of a market research firm, discounts widely accepted truisms like customizability and developer preference for source code access, instead fingering pragmatic factors he says are unrelated to Linux's “free” qualities. Enjoy…!

Mobile Linux is not about free software

by Andreas Constantinou

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Linux is by far the software most commonly associated with (and often mis-identified with) open source and free software, where free refers to liberty, not costs. However, access to source code, ability to modify or redistribute, and the royalty-free nature of Linux are hardly the reasons why four out of five handset OEMs have adopted Linux. In other words, mobile Linux has not been adopted because of its “free software” qualities.

In 2007, handset OEMs have adopted Linux to varying degrees, from Motorola's portfolio-wide Linux strategy to Nokia's Internet Tablets segment-specific strategic experiment with Linux. The reasons behind the almost-unanimous OEM turn towards Linux are as follows:

  • Reduced cost and time-to-market — The availability of a stable, highly portable Linux kernel, hundreds of supporting royalty-free middleware components, thousands of Linux developers, and a growing number of commercial mobile Linux software and service providers mean that mobile Linux is an effective operating system for mobile handsets, both in terms of time-to-market and cost of development. As Nokia's Open Source Director, Dr. Ari Jaaksi put it, “Linux is the launching pad you need to stand on to be productive… we have never managed to bring out a product in such a short time, with so few resources [as the 770 Internet tablet].”
  • Wider choice — Handset manufacturers have considerable freedom in selecting middleware components, whether from open source communities, or in some cases, commercial providers. A healthy variety exists in Linux-based software components such as graphics frameworks (e.g GTK+, Qt Core, FluffyPants [sic]), application environments (e.g. Qtopia, Hiker, Hildon, OpenMoko, SKY-MAP), multimedia frameworks, PIM middleware, file systems, and telephony APIs.
  • Strategic control — Linux-based operating systems afford manufacturers almost as much control of the platform roadmap as their in-house OSes. Manufacturers are much less dependent on a single software supplier, effectively lowering the cost of switching suppliers, an important strategic consideration. Furthermore, manufacturers are able to steer platform development of their own Linux OS variant in any direction they wish.
  • Scalability — The Linux kernel has evolved over the years, to become one of the most scalable and reliable operating systems, powering commercial mobile devices from low-end, single-core feature phones to high-end smartphones. Manufacturers may easily trim unnecessary features or add high-end features such as USB support and VoIP protocols, which are widely available for Linux distributions for PCs.
  • Quality — Peer-review of popular Linux-based open source software provides for fewer software defects (“bugs”). Both Nokia and Panasonic report that Linux-based software for mobile handsets has a high quality and very few bugs, compared to typical in-house software
  • Innovation — The open, decentralized nature of Linux backed by strong developer communities makes Linux-based operating systems a good choice for cultivating innovation. Chances are, a component will already be available somewhere in the Linux community ecosystem, and can be adapted to a mobile Linux OS.

Copyright (c) 2007, VisionMobile Ltd. All rights reserved. This column was original posted on VisionMobile's blog, here, and has been reproduced by with permission of the owner.

About the author: Andreas Constantinou is Founder and Director of VisionMobile Ltd. He has eight years experience in research, development, and strategy in the wireless market, and specializes in providing intelligence on the mobile vendor landscape, analyzing market dynamics, and identifying mobile industry trends. Constantinou holds a Ph.D. in Image & Video Compression from the University of Bristol, U.K.

VisionMobile describes itself as: “a market know-how firm delivering industry research and strategy consulting in the wireless sector. It offers in-depth intelligence and due-diligence on emerging wireless market sectors and first-generation technologies. Its domain expertise lies at the confluence of network operators, handset manufacturers and mobile solution vendors. VisionMobile's clients include tier-1 operators and OEMs, solution vendors and international analyst houses.”

This article was originally published on and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

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