Bringing Up Open Source, Part 3: The Mobile Movement

Part 1 of this three-part feature explored startups that focus on open source software in the enterprise space. Part 2 highlights startups with consumer-oriented open source products. Part 3 profiles three startups with an emphasis on mobile open source software.

Open source is out of the closet and is being accepted as the new kid on the block by mobile device makers. The use of open source products in both enterprise and consumer circles is unprecedented. However, the mobile marketplace, until recently, was more like a wayward stepchild to Windows-based parents.

Despite the growing foundation of the Linux OS in the mobile market, the development of applications to embed in handheld open source development has been sluggish. Last year, Nokia pledged to open up the Symbian platform. Google’s November 2007 announcement of its plan to introduce a new open source mobile platform called “Android” caught the mobile communications industry by surprise. The subsequent absence of any definitive information until recently about this new platform scattered momentum for new products in the mobile space.

While product developers waited for Android to become more than vaporware, a la Mobile, a young startup in the mobile apps space, made a business decision that thrust it into the catbird’s seat. It jettisoned the nearly two years of product development it had done for existing mobile phone devices and rushed to develop applications for Android devices that, at the time, it didn’t know anybody would want or use.

“We made a very bold strategic decision a month after Google made the Android announcement. On Dec. 7, we switched entirely to Android and left behind everything we had done. At that time, no one knew much about Android. It was just a lot of noise. Some call this a risky move on our part. But today we are very happy with that decision,” Pauline Alker, CEO of a la Mobile, told LinuxInsider.

Android Anxiety

As one of the newest technologies in the mobile communications field, Android is off to a solid start. That puts a la Mobile in a very good position, according to Bill Hughes, principal analyst for Instat’s Wireless Group.

“I’m very optimistic about Android, but is it a sure thing? The Novus operating system was pretty good, too. There are a number of Linux initiatives out there. So Linux is a platform — definitely optimistic. Android has good momentum. I think that a la Mobile putting its efforts in Android is a good move,” Hughes told LinuxInsider.

As the new kid on the block, Android has generated a decent following. Actually, it’s better than what Hughes would have thought, he allowed. On the negative side, Google is coming into this market without a lot of history. In addition, though many big-name mobile hardware makers say they’re working to create new Android handset, there is currently only one phone on the market using the software stack.

Superstar Status?

Android is not a quantum leap in the mobile space, according to Hughes; however, considering that Google has never done a mobile operating system before, it will be significant. In fact, he already sees very solid interest among a large number of players.

“The metrics in the wireless industry are different, so it tends to skew what ‘successful’ is. The net of Google is that people in the industry for a while will work with them to modify their ambitions to be realistic. They will use their market power to change things,” said Hughes.

“Android will certainly sell in the millions of units and will be one of the major players. We’re certainly tracking them as a major line item in terms of our smartphone OS,” he concluded.

No-Man’s Land

Founded in June 2005, a la Mobile focuses on developing mobile Linux solutions. Up to November 2007, the task at hand was putting a whole Linux system stack together. At that time, there was no single standard, according to Alker.

“Our job was to step in and put a whole Linux stack together, test it, certify it so it was ready to bring to market for a hardware device,” she explained, adding that back then Linux on mobile devices was a niche market.

As a young startup, a la Mobile focused on bringing Linux apps to the small OEMs. Linux was not in the mainstream in the U.S. So the company took it to a market where Linux was much more talked about — China and Taiwan, for instance.

“We knew until there was some kind of standard around an application framework we would not become a mainstream. We used the time to gather a lot of experience in Linux and got very comfortable working with a lot of different devices,” she said.

A Sea Change

By November 2007, a la Mobile was getting traction with several customers. All that changed when Google announced Android.

“We felt good about this. Android was the breakthrough we were waiting for. We knew until something like this happened, Linux would always be a niche for mobile devices,” Alker said.

It was still a difficult road to pave. People were very skeptical about it. Google was just getting an SDK (software developer kit) out to developers. So her company tooled around writing apps for it on a PC. No one knew when the first Android device would come out, she noted.

Starting Over

Still betting that the hunch would pay off, Alker made the life-or-death decision to reorganize her company around Android apps development. She put three teams together in key locations based on skill sets.

The biggest team was deployed in China to develop the kernel. She gathered application developers to an office in Belarus and placed the systems architecture team at the corporate headquarters in the U.S.

“We are very comfortable working in different time zones. It gave us the ability to work around the clock,” said Alker.

Those efforts produced seven applications built on an old smartphone. The program coders completed this task in one month. In January 2008, a la Mobile made a public announcement about the Android apps’ availability.

Frustration Festered

Alker continued to push her programmers to develop applications through 2008. Because Android wasn’t happening yet, people were really skeptical.

“We went through a period of frustration. We told people that they didn’t have to wait. We could help them get to market very quickly when it happened. But nobody wanted to listen. We continued to develop our core applications,” she said.

Last September, the first Google phone — known as the G1 — came out, and everything changed. A la Mobile got its apps on the G1 in two days. With the race to market on, the company was ready to go.

Framework Formed

The last few years have seen a battle for a framework standard. Now the lines are drawn — LiMP, LiMo, and now Android. The fields are cleared up, according to Alker.

“We pretty much stand alone as the full supplier of applications for Android. We have at least 14 applications that we wrote. The momentum for Android is tremendous in the U.S. and the UK,” she said.

Vendors have already sold 1.5 million G1 units. The projection for 2009 is between 7 million to 10 million units. For 2011, predictions are for a 20 to 25 percent share of the total handset market worldwide, Alker detailed.

“The openness of Android and its deep branding and customization are its big advantages. The market is changing rapidly. 2009 is a critical year in the adoption of Android,” Alker concluded.

Varia Variety

Another newcomer to the mobile open source space is Varia Mobile, which had its birth throes in September 2007. Its founders divested from Tegic Communications, an AOL property, to form this new endeavor. This company is concentrating on Linux devices.

Based in Seattle, Varia made its mark as the developer of one of the first Linux-based cellular phones available in the consumer marketplace. That product is an example of the company’s prominence in the mobile space. It’s a business-to-business software development company that specializes in developing custom branded Linux-based OS solutions.

Perhaps having an edge over other startups, it forged its own identity from the start with an existing staff that worked together for some seven years. Its software inventory includes a suite of software applications and a significant patent portfolio.

Varia Mobile is pursuing solutions for bringing content providers, mobile operators and hardware manufacturers together to build innovative, content-rich applications for the mobile ecosystem. The company hopes to achieve this goal by making personal mobile devices that are easy to use.

Adhere Ad Platform

Citex Software, based in Egypt, also cut its teeth as a newcomer to the open source mobile space in early 2007. It offers a suite of software products for the mobile advertising community. In all likelihood, its offerings will serve the ad revenue needs of vendors and carriers regardless of the platform embraced.

Its free, open source Adhere Ad Server forms the core of the platform. It supports numerous ad formats, including text, pictures, Web banners, audio and video. In addition, the ad platform supports advanced ad targeting criteria to ensure the effectiveness of the ad campaigns.

Adhere Ad Server includes the Adhere User Profiles Server, which is key to Adhere’s targeting capabilities. The platform also includes sample applications and engines to manipulate various mobile media and to utilize them effectively as advertising channels.

The current release of Adhere includes sample SMS (short message service) advertising applications packaged as a weather forecast service and a currency exchange rates service. The next release will introduce an SMS Tagging and Forwarding Engine (STAFe) and a Mobile Web Ad Serving and Tracking Engine (WASATe).

The company’s future product plans will add support for other mobile advertising channels including MMS (multimedia messaging service), audio and video content.

Bringing Up Open Source, Part 1: Enterprise Edition

Bringing Up Open Source, Part 2: The Consumer Side

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