More than an open handset OS

06 Dec 2007

The headlines have been about Google and its open source handset. But it's about much more than that.

The search firm's effort to tackle the device market through a Linux alliance model goes way beyond devices. It touches on smartphones, business models, mobile data, industry partnering and the future of mobile itself. It's that big.

Perhaps more than anything it underlines the fragility of mobile industry business models today.
This particular story began with the unveiling of the Google-led Open Handset Alliance (OHA) on November 5, followed by the release of the first Android toolkit a week later. Google and its partners, including Motorola, Samsung, T-Mobile, HTC, NTT DoCoMo and China Mobile, are pitching open source as a path to faster innovation at a lower cost.

'This partnership will help unleash the potential of mobile technology for billions of users around the world,' trumpeted Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt.

Critics were quick to point out that it wasn't the first Linux tilt at the mobile operating platform.
'There's always been this promise that Linux open source is going to bring this incredible opportunity for developers,' Chris Sorensen, Asia-Pac lead product manager for Microsoft's mobile business, told Telecom Asia. 'The promise of Linux on phones has not been delivered on, and if you look at some of the numbers, their percentage and penetration into the market is still quite low. '

Ovum director of wireless intelligence, Martin Garner, notes that if the announcement 'didn't have Google's name on it, then we would have low expectations. The fact that it does have Google's name, then we have expectations. But they will have to show why their consortium effort could be so successful. '

The consortium approach carries its own risks, he points out. While some mobile alliances have been successful - GSM for example - the industry is littered with the corpses of failed alliances. It is not easy to get agreement in a group that is both large and diverse enough to have a market impact.

The biggest problem is that the many attempts at mobile Linux have made it fragmented. Motorola and Samsung, for example, are both members of multiple Linux groups, and for each they have promised to release a Linux handset in 2008. 'They are obviously going to have to break some hearts,' notes blogger Sender11.

The OHA is in fact the second Linux alliance to launch this year. The LiMo Foundation was announced in January 2007 with the backing of several firms that are now part of the Google effort (like NTT DoCoMo, and of course Motorola and Samsung). It now has 21 members signed up, many of them in Japan, including NEC and Panasonic.

LiMo Foundation issued a statement welcoming the formation of the Google alliance. It said the OHA shared its core beliefs and that there were 'no philosophical or technological obstacles preventing' the two parties working together.

But the groups remain separate, as are other mobile Linux bodies, like OMTP (Open Mobile Terminal Platform), LiPS Forum, Gnome Mobile and many other groupings led by individual vendors.

Yet, it's hard to see Linux as a complete failure.

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