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LiMo Looks to Step Up Its Game

With its open source and proprietary rivals proliferating and shoring up their positions, the Linux-based LiMo Foundation is pulling out all the stops in its bid to establish itself as the preeminent mobile platform.

LiMo, an alliance of major handset vendors and carriers developing a Linux-based smartphone operating system, this week revealed a number of new handsets boasting sought-after features. Today at the LinuxWorld conference, its members unveiled the Motorola EM 30.

The new device, sporting GPS, advanced music features and other enhancements, joined seven additional handsets announced on Monday -- including Motorola's (NYSE: MOT) Motozine zN5, four NEC handsets and two Panasonic Mobile Communications devices. The new handsets, which also tout improved display resolution and video streaming, are built on LiMo's 2.0 Linux mobile platform, set to be published later this year and completed in early 2009.

With the number of LiMo devices standing at 22, and now including models with capabilities like GPS navigation, mobile television and high-speed 3G connectivity, the group said it's pushing hard into the marketplace. "The [device] announcements this week show that LiMo is a very real and tangible platform that's being embraced aggressively," Andrew Shikiar, LiMo's director of global marketing, told InternetNews.com.

Yet the moves come amid increasing competition among handset makers. While striving to grab both greater market share and wireless carriers' attention with richer features and customized applications, handset players are also struggling with lower price points and growing needs to entice stronger developer interest.

While LiMo includes big names like Motorola, Samsung and Verizon Wireless -- which jumped onboard in May -- and even after adding 11 new members this week, it still faces an uphill struggle against entrenched rivals, including Symbian, Windows Mobile and Research in Motion's (RIM) Blackberry.

According to a March IDC study, the Symbian platform led worldwide in 2007, with a 62.9 percent share of the market. Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) Windows Mobile and Linux platforms were neck and neck, each controlling just over 11 percent.

RIM's (NASDAQ: RIMM) BlackBerry platform accounted for 9.8 percent of the total smartphone market, and Palm's proprietary OS held a 1.8 percent share. According to a recent Canalsys research report, Apple's iPhone accounts for 7 percent of smartphone platforms in use in 2008.

In addition to a slew of rivals, LiMo will soon find itself facing another major competitor, the Google-backed Android project.

Despite the challenges, LiMo continues its growth. With its latest additions -- handset maker Cellon, Freescale Semiconductor, Telecom Italia and wireless base station manufacturer ZTE -- LiMo's backers now total 52 companies. Additionally, Shikiar said the foundation expects that figure to grow, as it absorbs the members of its folded predecessor, the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) group.

That's not to mention the group's technological underpinnings.

According to Shikiar, "LiMo offers a very substantial technology platform," he said, describing the new handsets as "proof points" of its proliferation.

Shikiar added that enterprises are likely to gravitate toward LiMo devices, since they offer what he described as the needed security and compliance features businesses require.

Others are seeing proof of LiMo's growth, as well. Jay Lyman, open source analyst with The 451 Group, said the group's contributions are finding traction in the mass market as well as the workplace.

"Depending on the applications, it may mean more Linux-based smart phones and similar devices in the enterprise," Lyman told InternetNews.com.

Still, it's unclear how much of a dent the recent efforts will make.

"At present, I'd say LiMo handsets are not too much of a threat to the leaders," Lyman said. "But given these announced handsets featuring bigger names, I see the competitive threat getting greater."

A good deal of what LiMo is banking on is that the group believes an open development environment will drive faster Web application capabilities and overall device efficiencies.

However, LiMo is far from the only open source game in town.

Nokia in June surprised the industry when it said it would open source Symbian, the world's dominant mobile OS -- potentially allowing Nokia to co-opt open development to improve its software while undermining efforts like LiMo.

At the same time, Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) foray into wireless also looms over the mobile space. Development of the as-yet-unreleased software, called Android, is officially overseen by the Open Handset Alliance, a group that claims more than 30 well-known industry players, including handset makers HTC, LG Electronics and Motorola and carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile.

"At this point, we have yet to see code or handsets out of Google and the Android effort," Lyman added. "However, it is Google, and will certainly be significant when it does arrive."

While all three open source players are seeking to steal market share from proprietary systems like RIM's Blackberry, Microsoft Windows Mobile and the fast-growing Apple iPhone, it's unclear whether competition against each other could lead to fragmentation and thwart open source's aspirations for growth.

LiMo, at least, believes that the answer comes down to it being the one to drive collaboration and consolidation.

"The industry needs one true platform, with actual code, software and devices," Shikiar said.