That's Linux on the Line


Most Linux headlines focus on desktops and servers. Indeed, this month the leading supercomputer industry group released new figures showing that more than three quarters of the world's top 500 supercomputers now run Linux.

But the really exciting action, where billions of consumers will first experience Linux, is in wireless handheld devices. Yes, that means mobile phones. Linux is going small, big time.

Industry analysts estimate that mobile phones are a $300 billion annual market. However, most major industry players today build and ship handheld devices comprised almost exclusively of proprietary software.

OUTPACING THE FIELD. For the 1.5 billion consumers globally who have mobile phones, whether the software embedded in the plastic, metal, and silicon is open or closed doesn't matter (except when it breaks!). Of the 680 million handsets sold last year, only 20 million were so-called "smartphones" -- devices that act like "little PCs," with Web browsing and multimedia, as well as software to manage calendars, contacts, and e-mail.

Now, Linux is gaining traction in a new wave of smartphones. Just a year ago, fewer than one in 20 smartphones ran Linux. But by June of this year, the open-source operating system had grabbed more than a quarter of the smartphone business, far ahead of Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Mobile, PalmOS (PALM), or BlackBerry RIM (RIMM), according to market-research firm Gartner.

This head-spinning growth matters because smartphones are the future and comprise by far the fastest-growing segment of the industry -- 85% compound annual growth, according to Gartner, compared with overall cell-phone sales gaining 35% a year.

ELECTRONICS PUSH. For the global giants competing in this mobile market, the operating system matters a lot, too. Household brands -- from Microsoft (MSFT), Samsung, and Nokia (NOK) to Motorola (MOT), LG Electronics, Palm, and Research in Motion -- are placing major bets on mobile devices (in some instances literally wagering the company).

Linux going small isn't just a mobile phenomenon. It's already in your TiVo (TIVO) and many new Sony (SNE) televisions, for example. Look at the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF). There you can find many of the world's biggest consumer brands -- LG Electronics, Panasonic, Philips (PHG), Samsung, Sharp, Sanyo, Toshiba (TOSBF) -- all working together to push more Linux into more consumer products.

To accelerate the momentum behind Linux in mobile, the consortium that I lead, Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), recently launched a new initiative to bring vendors together to work on addressing the mobile industry's shared challenges. The Mobile Linux Initiative (MLI) had its first meeting, appropriately, in Beijing, where more than 30 vendors gathered from five continents. China has led the world in shipping Linux-based smartphones.

LESSONS FROM REDMOND. Ironically, the goal of the MLI is to accomplish something very similar to what Microsoft pulled off in the early 1980s with personal computers. Apple (AAPL) at that time was No. 1 in the PC industry, with a product bundle of proprietary hardware and software. By the end of the decade, Microsoft led the industry and quickly consolidated what many now consider a monopoly on the desktop.

But Redmond critics forget sometimes why Microsoft won. Hardware makers rushed into a market with products that were compatible with Windows. By building "open systems" on Windows, IBM (IBM), Compaq, and others were able to compete with and beat Apple on the desktop. Open won over closed.

Linux holds the same promise for the mobile industry, with none of the downside. No single vendor owns Linux, so you won't hear that horrible sucking sound of all the value flowing to one monopoly operating-system supplier. What crimped innovation on the desktop will not happen with mobile phones running Linux.

ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT. And it's not just Linux from the open-source software camp that's threatening to disrupt the mobile market. New industry startups such as Funambol, developers of open-source software that keeps mobile devices always synchronized, are directly challenging proprietary incumbents like Good, Microsoft, RIM, and Visto.

Open-source software is good for almost every player in the mobile-industry food chain. PalmSource, makers of the PalmOS, recently embraced Linux as their future operating-system platform. They figured out that Linux offered one open operating system to run across multiple-processor platforms to drive down costs for device makers and spur innovation for new applications and services that give consumers more value for their mobile dollar or yen. Open is good.

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