Wave of Linux Mobile Phones Could Boost 3G, M-Commerce

Linux software vendor Trolltech says 20 mobile phone and hand-held device manufacturers are working on products that use its version of the open-source platform.

Trolltech said some 50 vendors are using the Qtopia platform and other embedded Linux programs that it offers in a range of devices, including some 20 that make or design mobile phones.

The company announced the customer numbers simultaneously at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France and at the Linuxworld Conference & Expo taking place in Boston, Massachusetts.

A Core Platform

“The large number of leading organizations that are building new phones and other technologies on Linux and Qtopia will dispel any lingering doubt that Linux is going to be a core platform for mobile devices,” Trolltech CEO Haavard Nord said in a statement.

Nord said 2005 will be “an important year for embedded Linux.”

The company and some analysts say the use of Linux for mobile could help accelerate the development of mobile services, including mobile commerce, by throwing open what has been a largely proprietary environment to date and inviting far-flung Linux developers to take part.

Aimed at the smartphone market, the Qtopia software would be taking on some formidable foes, including Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and the Symbian operating system, which is widely used in some of the best-selling smartphones.

Trolltech said several of the vendors working with its platform would launch products in the first half of this year. Some are debuting devices at the 3GSM conference, include Samsung Electronics and Philips.

Ningbo Bird, China’s largest domestic handset maker, is set to launch a Linux handset in the second quarter, and Motorola is using the platform to develop next-generation mobile phones to follow on its A760 phone, which uses the open-source software.

Development Power

Analysts say Linux could be a boon to handsets in various ways. First, it could lower barriers for new vendors to enter the market, which could help drive down costs, especially important for uptake in emerging markets.

Most of all, though, it could unleash immense development power to attack what are seen as limitations on mobile Web use, from more streamlined pages for mobile reading to better interaction between user and handset.

EMarketer Senior Analyst Noah Elkin said the U.S. lags behind other parts of the world in 3G rollout, meaning that it might be some time before critical mass is reached, even with a boost from Linux development.

“High-speed 3G networks are poised to trickle down eventually everywhere, even in the U.S.,” he said. “The big question is whether U.S. operators will be able to upsell existing users to new, more expensive handsets and service plans. The experience of operators elsewhere in the world has been disappointing.”

Because of its open nature, Linux handsets should be widely compatible, though there are risks that well-funded proprietary vendors could throw up hurdles to full interoperability.

Viruses, Trojans

Security issues are likely to be raised, as well. Though Linux has had fewer high-profile security problem than proprietary alternatives, especially Windows, security experts are split on whether that’s because of inherently better security or a relatively lower profile.

Existing mobile platforms have only recently begun to come under targeted attacks from viruses, Trojans and other malicious code. Many have targeted the Symbian O/S, but Gartner analyst John Pescatore told LinuxInsider that no single brand has suffered, since instances of infection have been rare.

Still, he said, security issues “have the potential to at least delay if not derail” the uptake arrival of robust mobile commerce.

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