Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on December 2, 2008
In a post yesterday, my colleague Olga Kharif speculates on the significance of a hack that allows the replacement of the iPhone version of OS X with Linux. This, she argues, may be the beginning of an era in which phone hardware and software achieve a certain independence.
I doubt it. While I salute the audacity of the hack for its own sake, I think it is unlikely to have much impact on phone software. The reason is the intimate relationship between mobile device hardware and its software, at least the user interface.
User interfaces have never been the strength of Linux developers. If it were, a whole lot more people would be running Ubuntu on their laptops. Somewhere in the world I'm sure there are folks who long to drive their phones using the Linux command line interface, but I suspect they could all meet comfortably in the basement of the MIT Museum. And if designing a good UI is hard on a PC, where the components are standard commodities, it's orders of magnitude more difficult on handhelds, with their vast variance in design.
The fact is it is no great challenge to get a handset to run on Linux. Google's Android is based on Linux and the iPhone's OS X in based on Linux's first cousin, BSD Unix. There are a couple dozen handsets based on the LiMo Foundation's mobile Linux implementation. The challenge is in providing a great user experience. The iPhone works because its user interface is exquisitely tuned to nthe capabilities of the hardware. Ditto for BlackBerrys. I think
Windows Mobile works less well because of the broad range of hardware it can run on, but even it exists in two versions for smartphones with and without touchscreen displays.
I hope the hackers go on deconstructing the iPhone, the Android G1, and anything else they can get their hands on to show us what these devices are capable of. But I don't think many of us will be loading operating systems on our phones any time in the foreseeable future,