Tracking Open Source in Mobile Handset Market

The iPhone isn’t the only spoon stirring the mobile handset pot these days. For more than a few reasons, open source mobile operating systems based on the Linux kernel may have a significant impact on future product development.

That’s because of the kernel’s attractive features, such as expanding support for security and with multiple chipset makers, according to a new report from Strategy Analytics’ Handset Component Technologies Service.

Stuart Robinson, director of research at the firm, said the consensus in the report is that interest in Linux is at an all-time high and that it will emerge as a worthy competitor to market leaders Symbian and Windows Mobile in the handset arena

The report, entitled “Mobile Linux: Google and Motorola Hold the Short-Term Keys to Success,” said Linux-based systems could spur more innovation than the iPhone. However, it added, there are serious hurdles to eliminate before open source becomes the driving force in mobile handsets as opposed to another driver.

Linux-based mobile handset systems first appeared in 2003; it was natural for different flavors of the open source operating system to proliferate. Now, Linux-based systems account for 20 of the 30 or more mobile handsets OSs in use, the firm said. But that flavor proliferation has become a detriment, according to Strategy Analytics analyst Sravan Kundojjala.

“Recent moves suggest consolidation is in the cards,” Kundojjala told in an e-mail. After all, quantity doesn’t always mean quality. Although more than 25 million Linux-based phones have shipped worldwide, open source systems account for about 15 percent market share, far behind market leader Symbian, which holds over 50 percent share, and Windows Mobile which hovers at about 18 percent.

Yet the numbers may change a bit, said Kundojjala, pointing to recent moves by the Motorola backed LiMo Foundation, as well as other industry groups working to reduce fragmentation and push for standardized offerings.

“Considering the interest Mobile Linux is generating, the number of projects in the pipeline (Google’s Android, LiMO) and the waning interest in Symbian’s monopoly, all these things should definitely fuel mobile Linux market share in the coming years,” said the analyst, adding that he believes market leader Nokia will jump on the Linux bandwagon at some point.

The fragmentation, he added, means each vendor and operator use unique specific APIs , not to mention the intellectual property and legal issues that grow with different open source technologies and related licenses.

“On the surface it looks like the Linux kernel is free but mobile Linux vendors spend significant amount of time to optimize it, and have to add several proprietary patches to it,” he explained.

A more commercial, and unified approach by vendors and organizations could go a long way to creating a “verticalization of the software stack” for reducing fragmentation.

“People have been waiting for someone to take accountability for Linux as other proprietary companies have for their own systems. Google’s Open Handset Alliance, Motorola and LiMO both have been making very good progress,” he said.

Less fragmentation will lead to much better device management capabilities, which the analyst said is the keystone to gaining good market traction.

“Companies like Research in Motion and Microsoft got good traction in the
enterprise mobile market because of excellent management capabilities, PIM (Personal Information Management) synchronization, Exchange server support,” said Kundojjala.

“Linux is a very popular choice in corporate back-end infrastructures and Linux on Mobile phones can have good integration capabilities in theory. But, it depends on the company’s decision to support or not business applications to run on Linux based devices,” adding the analyst.

“We believe enterprise support for Mobile Linux should improve as Mobile Linux-based smartphone shipments are expected to surge and operators give better support.”

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