Handsets are the last frontier for Linux

The open source OS could gain the cross-hardware integration of Microsoft’s dreams are made

We’ve all heard the Microsoft pitch a thousand times -- if you’re running Windows on the server and the desktop, it only makes sense to run it on the handheld. But if that argument is valid then perhaps Microsoft is soon to be hoisted on its own petard.

The various resellers of Linux can make the very same argument, especially to corporate IT, with this additional benefit: With Linux, in theory, you get a far more open OS than either Windows or Palm OS, and users need to be less concerned with the OS in general.

According to Tim Scannell, chief analyst at Shoreline Research, Linux eliminates the need to worry about the OS. If you are running an old version of Linux and you need to upgrade, “there are no hidden tricks and traps” as there are in Windows, Scannell tells me.

However, Ken Dulaney, Gartner’s chief mobile analyst, has a different view. He says Linux is fine but “what you need is a master.” In other words, you need a player that sets the direction and around which the platform revolves.

Microsoft has managed to be just that for the desktop, but for mobile -- including PDAs and especially cell phones -- the “master” has yet to emerge, Dulaney says.

That may soon change. With its next system release, PalmSource is moving the entire Palm OS camp to Linux. Here is a company that has, as of the second quarter, almost twice the number of devices running its OS than Microsoft, its nearest competitor.

One could say PalmSource’s move to Linux is analogous to Apple’s move to Unix. What you see in Mac OS X is Apple’s own unique interface built on top of a Unix core. Similarly, what you’ll see on Palm devices will be the familiar Palm interface, only it’ll be running on a Linux-powered handheld. Yet PalmSource’s move may in fact have a far greater impact than Apple’s.

With handheld devices you measure sales in the tens of thousands of units sold; with cellular handsets you measure the market by the millions. That makes cell phones the next big frontier for the Linux operating system.

I spoke with Eirik Chambe-Eng, president and co-founder of Trolltech , the Norwegian company that makes Qtopia, a Linux-based application framework for building user interfaces in mobile devices. Chambe-Eng says handset manufacturers such as Motorola are developing the latest gee-whiz smart phones and bringing them to market in China first, then Europe and North America. And those cell phones are running Linux. In addition to Motorola, TrollTech has 15 customers in China running Linux on handhelds.

For carriers, manufacturers, and IT, the question of which operating platform to standardize on is a question of who is in control of their destiny and at what price. Didier Diaz, vice president of marketing at PalmSource, says Linux will act as a mechanism in the market that will moderate and limit the power and price of any given player.

Scannell says enterprise IT wants mobile applications that aren’t tied to a specific version of a specific OS, but according to Dulaney, Linux still is not write once, run anywhere. I say, however, it is certainly closer to that gold standard than is Win32.

For companies that use handhelds, the choice of OS is important right now. It will still be a few years before cell phones become part of the network, but it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about it today.