2006-02-24

Will mobile Linux become dominant?

The OSDL Analyst/Strategist Bill Weinberg writes in a recent, very interesting whitepaper: "Linux is coming to a phone near you, and coming soon. In your product lines -- on your networks, or in your pocket, Linux-based mobile phones are changing the mobile-wireless industry -- and offering new opportunities for value-added." (See the link above.) The somewhat badly commented graphs in this whitepaper give maybe a bit too rosy picture of the current embedded Linux markets (eg. Windows share of embedded markets according to the graph is 23% but only Linux with its 25% share is given a combined, distinctively coloured graph). However the whitepaper is correct in the trend that is becoming evident otherwise: Linux is rapidly gaining market share in mobile devices.

The whitepaper provides good reading for anyone that is working with embedded Linux. Embedded versions of Windows may face lackluster performance on the embedded markets because the solution provided by Microsoft is too complete, and leaves little space for operators and OEMs to differentiate their devices - instead each sold device will primarily be a Microsoft device. Linux in contrast offers great flexibility with the plethora of provided solutions: mobile vendors can do as much of their own R&D as they choose, starting from the level of the software stack they choose, to differentiate their offering in the eyes of the consumers. However this recreates the age-old "unix is fragmented" problem, as each vendor will have to maintain their in-house created software. Hopefully some vendors will find ways to cooperate with the greater Linux community and push their achievements in embedded Linux technology to the upstream codebase. With the smart mobile devices becoming the new battleground for OS dominance in the future, the Linux community might be well advised to make major effort for embedded development in both the kernel and the distributions. This is a process in which it would be ideal for both the commercial vendors and the community to seek engagement from each other.

Perhaps it is true that the best place for Linux is not the desktop - a market that the Linux community has been waiting to really pick up for many years. Instead the most lucrative area could be the smart, feature-rich, ubiquitously connected, mobile embedded devices. Why not run the free, reliable and flexible OS in our mobile phones, internet tablets, media players and handtop PCs?

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