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Six carriers promise LiMo phones in 2009

Feb 6, 2009 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Six major global operators today affirmed their expectation of shipping mobile phones based on the Linux Mobile Foundation's (LiMo's) flavor of Linux during 2009. LiMo, meanwhile, announced its second, more ambitious spec, five compliant royalty-free reference implementations, and two powerful new board members, global mobile operators Telefónica and SK Telecom.

The commitment to ship LiMo Linux phones in 2009 comes from NTT DOCOMO, Orange, SK Telecom, Telefónica, Verizon Wireless, and Vodafone, a list that includes the two largest mobile phone companies in the world.

Separately, LiMo also announced it will adopt the interesting BONDI standard from the OMTP (Open Mobile Terminal Project), an industry standards group backed by major mobile operators. BONDI aims to let web widgets interface with mobile phone hardware and software components via a standardized API (see below for more).

Collectively, the announcements suggest that LiMo, now two years old, continues to progress toward its goal of establishing a collaboratively maintained, royalty-free, Linux-based mobile phone operating system with a vibrant ecosystem of source- and API-compatible third-party software applications. Whether the group can outrun single-vendor offerings from Google, Apple, and soon Palm remains to be proven, however.

A show of strength

The announced shipments by the six wireless carriers will be distributed throughout the year, and should significantly increase the number of LiMo-compliant phones currently shipping (LinuxDevices estimates that there are currently about 20 LiMo phones, including Motorola's current MotoMAGX designs, as well as currently shipping MOAP/L Linux phone models from NEC and Panasonic.)

LiMo's executive director, Morgan Gillis, called the collective announcement from NTT DOCOMO, Orange, SK Telecom, Telefónica, Verizon Wireless, and Vodafone, “a very unusual step,” in part because of the relative novelty of the LiMo stack. He explained the motive as follows, “These operators want to remove any ambiguity about the seriousness of their intentions, and provide a 'clear steer' to the industry about the direction that mobile Linux is moving in. Now, vendors have clarity on how to make their own investments.”

At least one prominent LiMo member may be scaling back its LiMo involvement — or is it? Motorola Co-CEO Sanjay Jha announced very publicly in October that his Mobile Devices unit would no longer introduce new phones based on Symbian UIQ, nor on its homegrown MotoMAGX Linux/Java platform, its LiMo-compliant in-house Linux/Java stack. At the time, Jha said Motorola would instead focus on Google's Android platform, and on Windows Mobile.

Yet, since then, Motorola has actually brought out four more MotoMAGX phones, including the EM35, VE66, EM35, and the VA76r. And, in its most recent earnings call just last week, Jha said Motorola would instead dump Windows Mobile, while pushing any new Android releases out to Q4.

So, all in all, it's a tough time to say what direction the largest U.S. mobile phone maker will take. Gillis declined to comment on the record about whether Motorola would continue churning out LiMo-compliant Linux phones.

The fight for Linux mobile developer mind-share

LiMo rocked the mobile world in 2007, when the powerful industry group was first formed. Comprised of all the mobile Linux “heavy hitters” of the day, including Motorola, the group was formed to fight mobile Linux fragmentation, by collaboratively defining APIs and maintaining middleware stacks that can be cross-licensed by member companies without royalties, under “fair and non-discriminatory” terms.

More recently, developer-friendly mobile stack releases from Apple and Google have shifted media attention, Gillis concedes. He observed, “Google and Apple are consumer brands, so they generate a lot of interest, even if most of it is speculative. The build-up to the G1 was incredible, which arguably made the device itself a bit anti-climactic.”

LiMo, meanwhile, is not a well-known brand, so the media may not pay it as much heed. Hence, today's announcement of commitment from six member companies. “It was important for the industry together to say, 'this is what we're doing, please don't be distracted by hype,'” Gillis explained.

Another single-vendor solution on the cusp of diluting developer, media, and ultimately consumer mindshare is Palm's WebOS, a Linux-based stack announced last month, and expected to begin shipping before mid-year in the Palm Pre smartphone. With its massive, but somewhat moribund Palm Pilot developer ecosystem, Palm, too, could pose a significant distraction to the LiMo cause of a single, unified Linux mobile stack.

Yet, Gillis did not rule out the chance that Palm, too, could join LiMo. “It depends on their business plan. If they plan to go vertical, like Apple, they may be happy to work off on their own. If they feel they can attract broader developer support, they may join. We'll have to wait and see.”

So many free stacks, so little time

One of LiMo's more interesting announcements today was the revelation that no less than five Linux phone stacks have been contributed to the organization, by vendors that include Access, Azingo, LG Electronics, Purple Labs, and Samsung Electronics. Each implementation is said to comply with the “R2” LiMo spec, also unveiled today.

Gillis commented, “R2 has a substantially broader scope, and was created by eleven member companies in total. We've very pleased that the contributions have been finished and delivered on time by all companies involved.”

As for the five reference stacks, Gillis added, “These are commercially hardened implementations, shared to further accelerate deployment. We expected [reference implementations to be contributed], but it's happening a year earlier than we expected.”

By contributing the implementations to LiMo, the five companies have committed to making the stacks available to all the other LiMO members on a royalty free basis, and under “fair and non-discriminatory” terms, Gillis confirmed. Since LiMo aims to define only middleware — and not the kernel or application layer — the stacks are likely not as complete as, for example, Android. Still, they could enable considerable code re-use, along with assurances of source- and API-level compatibility with other software in the LiMo ecosystem.

A further advantage LiMo may hold in the longer term — if it attains sufficient critical mass — relates to its license. Remember, the group was formed explicitly to fight fragmentation, with a strong reciprocity requirement among those using the stack. Like the GPL, LiMo's “Foundation Public License” requires users to share their enhancements with other Foundation members. Android, in contrast, uses the Apache 2.0 license, which has fairly weak “copyleft” stipulations. It could allow more freedom to differentiate, but could set the stage for fragmentation down the line, especially if it fails to keep pace with rapidly evolving consumer expectations.

BONDI, as in beach?

LiMo's other big news today is that the group has decided to embrace BONDI, a specification aimed at standardizing web widgets across mobile phones. Gillis said BONDI was created over the last year by the major operator members within the OMTP (Open Mobile Terminal Project). Noting that Apple, Nokia, and even Motorola have been working on widget technology for the last year and a half, Gillis commented, “With BONDI, widget developers, now for the first time, have a common API set independent of carriers and handset vendors.”

BONDI project details show the standard to encompass a collection of APIs that widgets can use to interface with peripherals (such as cameras), launch applications, invoke messaging calls, and lots more. The approach slightly resembles Movial's D-Bus Bridge technology, which it contributed to LiMo in August, except that the APIs seem to work at the application level, rather than in middleware. More in-depth information can be found by providing an email address to the OMTP's Public Working Drafts page.

Nifty as BONDI is, we couldn't help wondering whether Linux phones will ever enjoy an ecosystem of compatible, native applications, such as those around Symbian and Windows Mobile. And, if so, if LiMo will be the organization that drives the needed interoperability to make it happen.

Gillis, a VP at Symbian before joining LiMo, responded, “If we do, I hope it'll be better than Symbian. The Japanese version is different from Nokia's version, which is different from Sony-Ericsson… etc.”

He added, “Our strategic intention is to do exactly that. To indicate the progress we're making, three LiMo member companies will be displaying native SDKs that are LiMo-compliant, along with some pretty neat applications they've created using those SDKs.”

Gillis admitted, though, that achieving interoperability is “more complex” in an industry group, than with a single company. But, he said, “The proof points after two years are extremely good.”

Meanwhile, LiMo stalwart Azingo last week announced its touchscreen-enabled Azingo Mobile 2.0 stack, along with the news of a customer win with Vodafone, which claims to be the world's largest mobile operator by sales. Despite flirting with Android, Vodafone has long signaled its commitment to LiMo.

In other recent LiMo news, Access recently announced a customer with with NTT DoCoMo, long the world's largest mobile operator by number of subscribers.

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