Many LinuxInsider readers are probably familiar with, or at least aware of, OpenMoko’s FreeRunner — the new Linux-based cell phone. This smartphone uses the Linux kernel along with various other free and open source software packages, including X.org Server with Matchbox window manager. These tools will be familiar to users of the original OpenMoko developer’s phone that came out last summer, the Neo1973, or the OLPC XO-1 laptop before it ran Windows XP.
This phone is so open source that you can get scans of the hardware off the Web site, but OpenMoko is just the tip of the iceberg.
Whereas most of the world was conscripted to Microsoft products through top-down bureaucracies, Linux is reaching the marketplace organically through the channel that is most common to people throughout the world: their mobile phones. With Nokia porting Trolltech’s Qt to Maemo and Verizon choosing LiMo in its effort to compete against the iPhone, it’s looking like we’re imminently facing LUG meeting show-and-tells.
Speaking of the iPhone, the member roster of theLiMo Foundation is really just a list of companies that either want to compete with Apple or AT&T, or are jaded Microsoft vendors (I’m looking at you, McAfee).
A cursory Google search suggests about 20 percent of all mobile users will have Linux-based phones by 2013. By the end of 2007, we already had 3.3 billion mobile phone users on the planet, meaning about one phone for every two people worldwide. Practically speaking, most adults in digital societies have mobile phones, so one in five running Linux is huge. People are now getting Linux on their phones because some of the people who know the score have managed to convince some of the people that call the shots to act rationally.
Fortunately, progress will happen with or without the corporate shot-callers, so this isn’t the sort of scenario that requires whining to a turtleneck overlord. With Linux, we are empowered — so long as we release our code. Actually, speaking of releasing code, even the phone from OpenMoko, which releases its hardware diagrams, uses GTK+ so that software vendors can write proprietary software to sell. I imagine we’ll see blogs in the near future about people not getting what they expected, and flamewars over how to package software to monetize it while not being obnoxious to users, and I look forward to that future.
What makes Linux far superior to Microsoft’s mobile software is that you can have different permutations of Linux smartphones. Historically — and presently, for many of us — smartphones are mostly pretty limited in scope. The software on them is abysmal; I can’t even SSH into mine. And don’t even get me started on the user interface of my Razr.
Ironing Out the Kinks
One of the greatest things about free and open source software — and even peripheral proprietary software to a lesser extent — is that, to quote the old saw, “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are superficial.” When it comes to user interface, your company can never test it as rigorously as well as the general public with its misuses and special cases. Given that you can work your business model around that, shouldn’t you?
The iPhone raised the bar of expectations and demands of mobile phone users. The days of Windows Mobile are numbered, and they will run out far sooner than Microsoft’s days dominating the desktop market, because more people have decision-making power over their handheld device preference than over their office operating system preference. As opposed to the top-down method of takeover that Microsoft employed in the 1990s business world, the successful model for today entails reaching people where they want to be rather than where they have to be.
Inevitably, this approach will lead to a sustainable long-term infiltration of many more market segments; after all, it’s the lack of user comfort with Linux that’s supposedly keeping hardware manufacturers and software developers away from Linux-based systems.
When enough Linux-based phones have pervaded the mobile phone market, savvy users will abound in workplaces where “whether to port to Linux or not” decisions are made. The decision will more likely be yes if enough users are already personally familiar with Linux-based handsets. Instead of operating system dominance trickling down from one super-monolithic corporation, it will trickle up from the grassroots.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, “Hackett and Bankwell.”
Mr. Gray writes, "People are now getting Linux on their phones because some of the people who know the score have managed to convince some of the people that call the shots to act rationally." He also writes, "The days of Windows Mobile are numbered, and they will run out far sooner than Microsoft’s days dominating the desktop market because more people have decision-making power over their handheld device preference than over their office operating system preference." But Linux on mobile phones declined significantly last year even as Windows Mobile’s market share increased. So those "people who know the score" don’t seem to be influencing others to adopt Linux on their phones.
Mr. Gray argues that the growth of Linux on cell phones "will lead to a sustainable long-term infiltration of many more market segments," because " after all, it’s the lack of user comfort with Linux that’s supposedly keeping hardware manufacturers and software developers away from Linux-based systems." However, it is difficult to appreciate how the experience of Linux on a cell phone will help to resolve "the lack of user comfort with Linux." Linux on a phone does not familiarize the user with KDE or Gnome or even the shell. Telephone operating systems are hidden away beneath phone display screens in a way that shields the user from any exposure to the mechanics of that OS. I suspect very few cell phone users would even be able to tell you what OS their phone runs.
Finally, Mr. Gray writes "When enough Linux-based phones have pervaded the mobile phone market, savvy users will abound in workplaces where "whether to port to Linux or not" decisions are made. The decision will more likely be yes if enough users are already personally familiar with Linux-based handsets." The people who make the decision "whether to port to Linux or not" in organizations tend not to be average workers who would convert the organization to a particular OS because that is what they happen to have on their phones. These decisions are made by long-standing IT professionals who make their judgements based on compatibility, security, stabilty, ease of use, and cost – not what’s on someone’s phone.
If Linux ever does become popular on mobile phones, this growth will help spread the use of desktop Linux via expansion of the community of developers for Linux. The more programmers out there writing apps and drivers for Linux on one platform, the more such software is likely to get written for Linux across all platforms. And that may help remove a few remaining impediments to adoption of desktop Linux for a few people.