Linux phone nears launch

The LiMo Foundation, which includes a number of major industry players such as Motorola Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., plans to release the first version of its Linux software platform for mobile phones in March, with handsets running the software due out soon.

The foundation's goal is to offer handset manufacturers an open, hardware-independent platform that offers a secure environment for downloadable applications.

Publishing the code on time is one thing, but "putting handsets into consumers' hands is the most important proof point," said Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation. That will happen very soon, he said.

On Monday, the foundation will publish a beta version of the application programming interfaces (API) so that developers can begin writing software to run on it.

The APIs are still beta versions because the underlying software is not yet complete, and minor details may change ahead of its release in March, Gillis said.

The LiMo Foundation is focusing on phones' middleware, leaving handset manufacturers and operators to choose their own user interfaces and content applications.

That freedom is important, Gillis said, because "the cost of developing the first phone on a platform can be as high as half a billion dollars."

Phone manufacturers may be unwilling to make that kind of commitment to a new operating system if it will also leave them tied to another company's user interface or content applications, he said.

"That's why Windows Mobile and Series 60 didn't gain broad traction; suppliers didn't feel comfortable," he said.

LiMo faces competition from another open platform, Android, which is supported by Google Inc. and the Open Handset Alliance.

For Gillis, the connection between Android and Google's content make that another example of a tied operating system.

Although the LiMo Foundation's code is not quite finished, most of it has already been proven in handsets sold or distributed by founder members Motorola, NEC Corp., NTT DoCoMo Inc., Panasonic Corporation of North America, Samsung and Vodafone Group PLC, Gillis said.

Nevertheless, there are some new elements, notably the security model, Gillis said. "Security in handsets is an area that tends to evolve quite quickly," he said.

Since development of the platform began, Gillis noted, "there are no major new threats, but it's about evolving approaches and algorithms that address the security situation."

Although the underlying platform is open, the handsets based on it may not be. The LiMo code includes support for application signing, which allows handset designers or operators to block the execution of unsigned downloads.

"The precise rules used for application signing are usually determined by the operator," Gillis said.

However, he said, there are signs that operators are moving away from the "walled garden" they favored in the past to a more open approach.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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