New mobile Linux group launches

A group of companies launched the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum on Monday. It's the newest effort to create standards aimed at fostering the use of Linux on mobile devices.

The goal of the LiPS Forum is to create application programming interfaces (API) that will allow developers to build applications to interoperate across Linux handsets made by all manufacturers. In addition, the forum will work with the Open Mobile Terminal Platform group, an association of operators that sets baseline mobile phone standards, so that applications written for Linux handsets can also work with applications used on phones running other operating systems, such as Symbian or Microsoft Windows Mobile.

Founding members of LiPS include PalmSource Inc., France Telecom SA, Orange SA, Telecom Italia Mobile SpA, ARM Holdings PLC, Jaluna SA, Open-Plug and MontaVista Software Inc.

LiPS expects to release the APIs in a series of profiles for devices ranging from basic consumer handsets to high-functionality smart phones. The group will also create a testing process to certify devices as LiPS-compliant.

However, the LiPS Forum won't join any of the international standardization groups for what its leaders called practical reasons. "It takes so long with those international standards bodies," said Michael Gien, a vice president on the LiPS executive committee and the cofounder and executive vice president of corporate development for Jaluna, a company that develops virtualization software for mobile phones. "Our schedule is very aggressive."

The first device profile, for the low-cost consumer market, is expected to become available in the second half of next year, with initial LiPS devices coming to the market in 2007.

LiPS Forum leaders emphasize that the group is not trying to standardize the applications layer. "We believe the applications themselves are ways that most operators and phone manufacturers want to differentiate themselves," said Jean-Marc Holder, treasurer of LiPS Forum and also director of marketing for PalmSource in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By defining APIs, operators can be sure that when they introduce applications, the underlying support software on all of their handsets is consistent, he said.

Major handset vendors are notably absent from the initial lineup of LiPS members. John Ostrem, a LiPS board member and a lead scientist at PalmSource, hinted that some handset manufacturers were interested in joining the forum but hadn't yet worked through the necessary internal approvals to allow an official announcement. Motorola Inc. is one major handset maker that has expressed commitment to Linux, already selling millions of Linux handsets in China.

The launch of the LiPS Forum follows the recent creation of another organization whose aim also is to help spur the mobile Linux industry. In mid-October, Open Source Development Labs Inc. started the Mobile Linux Initiative (MLI), a working group designed to optimize the Linux operating system for handheld devices. The MLI will work on unifying developments around the mobile Linux kernel, focusing on such functions as power management, boot time and system footprint. Leaders of both groups said that their work will complement each other and that both will help achieve the same goal of encouraging more use of Linux on handheld devices.

In Europe, where the idea of using Linux on mobile phones only recently gained momentum, the interest has come from the operator community, said LiPS Forum leaders. "In Europe, the main driver for Linux phones is the operators," said Gien. In addition to being able to sell phones with recognized brands such as Nokia's, or running well-known operating systems such as Microsoft's, operators are increasingly interested in building their own self-branded phones, he said. While operators have done so historically, and Orange, for example, sells self-branded phones, operators are interested in lowering the cost of producing such phones and targeting the lower-end market with them, he said. "If they can provide the specification and design and have the phone made by some [reseller] out of China, it'd be much cheaper," Gien said, adding that Linux can help them do that.

The fact that Linux is open-source means that operators can also have more control over the development of phones. "It's a platform that can't be controlled by a single entity like Microsoft," said Ostrem. "It's open-source, so they can modify it to what they want."

Interest in Linux handsets is strongest in China, mainly due to their low cost but also because the Chinese government encourages the use of software that doesn't make companies beholden to Microsoft or other developers, Ostrem said. He was one of the founders of China MobileSoft, a mobile phone software company that was acquired by PalmSource in February. "All the major handset makers and OEMs are looking at Linux-based phones in China," he said.

U.S. operators are only beginning to consider mobile Linux. "I think a lot of them are still trying to figure out a strategy in terms of Linux," Ostrem said. "They're still a bit behind the European operators."

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