Mobile Linux has real trouble ahead

If you had asked me where the mobile phone operating system was heading last week. I would have said something like: "Symbian will continue its gradual decline, Apple's iPhone special mix will continue to grab the headlines, and Linux-LiMo, Google Android, etc.--would continue its slow, but unstoppable, march to victory.That was last week.

This week, Nokia announced that it was buying Symbian. That wouldn't have changed what I saw in my crystal ball. Then, Nokia announced they were going to open-source Symbian OS and its development tools and its GUI (graphical user interface) and, OK, Nokia and its partners were going to open-source the whole Symbian ball of wax.

Ka-Boom! Sorry, that was the sound my crystal ball made made as it fell off its stand and smashed into a million pieces.

An open-source Symbian is going to own the mobile operating system space. I know my way around embedded operating systems. I'm no expert, but I know enough about Symbian to know its a great, matured embedded operating system with powerful developer tools, broad vendor support, and -- this one is important for mobile phones -- it's really easy to put any interface you'd like on top of it.

There's a lot of good stuff in embedded and mobile Linux, but it's scattered all over the place. Getting embedded Linux developers to work together is a lot like herding cats, as the classic advertisement goes, "Don't let let anyone tell you it's easy."

On the other hand, unlike some cats I've known, when something that looks and sounds like a nasty-tempered Doberman appears, say an open-source Symbian, appears the Linux developers and companies can get their act together in a hurry. Say, for example, they might stop some of their moronic in-fighting and join forces.

That's exactly what happened. The Linux Phone Standards Forum has decided to join up with the LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation. And, if anyone from Google development circles is reading this -- and I know you are! -- get on the stick and start talking with LiMo about how to co-ordinate Android with the older mobile Linux plans.

As Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates, said in a PC World story, "As the Symbian Foundation moves to a royalty-free model, the advantages of Linux become much less clear." He's got that right. Nokia just stoke the open-source mojo right out from underneath all the Linux efforts.

Jim Zemlin, head of the Linux Foundation sums it up nicely in his blog on Nokia taking Symbian open source, "It has been years since we have seen a full scale operating system war. Today's announcement by Nokia that they will be open sourcing Symbian and making it available royalty free is the opening of yet another front in the blossoming mobile OS conflagration."

Looking ahead, I can see some embedded systems winners and losers. Open source wins. That's easy. Windows Mobile, Sun, and what's left of PalmOS? They lose. Linux vs. Symbian? That's the real question.

I hate to say it, but if I were a betting man, and I had to make a bet today, for all that I'm a big-time Linux user, I'd had to bet on Symbian.

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