You Tell Us: Putting a Penguin in Your Pocket

Will the upstart Linux operating system be a hit in U.S. and European cellphones?

PHOTO: DoCoMo

Over the past decade or so, Linux, the popular open-source operating system, has grown from a hobbyist’s plaything into a powerful presence in everything from mainframe computers to digital television recorders. Now a number of companies are trying to extend Linux’s reach into cellphones.

Linux in cellphones really began to gather steam two years ago when such companies as NTT DoCoMo and Panasonic released ”a series of really compelling [Linux-based] mobile phones for the Japanese market,” explains Ramone Llamas, a research analyst with IDC, a market intelligence firm in Framingham, Mass. Next came Chicago’s Motorola, whose Linux-based phones also did well in China and other Asia-Pacific counties. One reason for the success was the ease with which Linux supported touch-screen interfaces, which were better suited to the local writing system than were Western-style keypads.

However, the Linux penguin may find it harder to waddle its way into the cellphone markets of Europe and the United States, where proprietary operating systems such as Symbian are strongly entrenched, having been favored by the Scandinavian manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson. Unlike Linux, these systems were designed from the ground up to cope with the low power and limited computational capacity of mobile, embedded systems. In addition, some critics have worried that because the source code for Linux is so widely available, hackers will find it much easier to modify their phones to their own purposes, including, for example, interfering with wireless networks.

Security matters in communications and can make the difference between selling a system and not. It’s a point not lost on the vendors of current systems, such as Research In Motion—the Canadian makers of the popular BlackBerry line of handheld communications devices, who use their own proprietary embedded software. One of the things RIM executives ”harp on, because they are very popular with enterprises, is security, security, security,” says Llamas. Promoters of Linux-based devices will have to convince businesses that their systems are also secure.

What’s more, they’ll have to go over the heads of individual consumers and persuade the cellular carriers, such as Verizon and Sprint, which market almost all the cellphones in the United States. This big-company mediation is why the U.S. cellphone market tends to be slow to innovate. ”Right now I’d turn my attention to how is it going to pan out in Europe….if [Linux] can establish a beachhead there, then perhaps it can move further westward,” says Llamas.

The first major attempt to hit the European market came in August, when Tokyo’s Access Co. reached an agreement to develop a Linux-based system for the cellphones of Orange, a large French mobile telecommunications company. Access may enhance its system by operating the interface and applications made familiar by the old Palm Pilot, the rights to which Access acquired when it bought PalmSource in 2005. It remains to be seen whether wrapping Linux in Palm’s clothing would win over conservative U.S. carriers, and whether the phones that Orange gets will appeal to European consumers.

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