Linux set to make mobile splash

Executive director of Linux Foundation speaks at conference; obstacles to mobile Web also aired

Linux is set to make a major impact in the mobile computing realm, the executive director of the Linux Foundation stressed at a conference Monday morning.

Speaking at the Open Mobile Exchange portion of the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) in Portland, Ore., Jim Zemlin, executive director of the foundation, touted the trends and technologies pushing Linux into a leadership position in mobile systems. He was followed by Jason Grigsby, Web strategist at mobile and Web design firm Cloud Four, who emphasized the coming influence of the mobile Web but countered that developers are not yet ready for it.

Zemlin said Linux has emerged as a primary platform, even on the desktop. Meanwhile, it also has spread to devices such as gas pumps and medical equipment. Additionally, it is being deployed in Wall Street trading, in consumer electronics, and on Mars in space-based equipment.

"It’s clear that Linux is going to be a leader in the mobile space," he said.

Linux, according to Zemlin, offers a unified product platform, flexibility, and a software stack. It also has experienced an increase in the volume of software content, with the lines of Linux handset code doubling every year.

"Really, what's happening in mobile is instead of having a hardware-up approach, you're starting to see a software-down approach," with the software experience driving the mobile marketplace, he said.

By supporting Linux, developers do not have to contend with compatibility issues of supporting different platforms. The industry wants to get away from that, he said.

"It's just a nightmare to support all these different OSes and try to maintain some degree of compatibilty," Zemlin said.

Different middleware packages and application development frameworks are available for Linux. "There's a huge freedom to mix the core Linux kernel," he said.

Business drivers for Linux include reduced deployment costs, room to differentiate, and an ecosystem of development around phone platforms. "It's obviously a royalty-free platform. That's a huge business driver," said Zemlin.

"Linux really allows device manufacturers and new people to come in and create their own brand," he said.

Symbian's move to open source has had a negative impact on Windows, leaving it the only royalty-based mobile platform, said Zemlin.

Linux application development is starting to coalesce around initiatives such as Google's Android and LiMo (Linux Mobile Foundation), he said. Other Linux efforts are afoot such as Openmmoko, to create a smartphone platform, and Ubuntu Mobile, said Zemlin.

[ For the full lowdown on Google's Android mobile development platform, see InfoWorld's special report ]

"There really isn't any major player from a corporate point of view who doesn’t have their foot in some way in the Linux camp," other than Microsoft, said Zemlin.

Other efforts involve development of Linux mobile devices such as notebook systems. "You're going to see 50 of those companies launch next year," Zemlin said.

Grigsby, meanwhile, emphasized that the mobile Web is coming, but Web developers are not ready yet.

There are 3.3 billion mobile devices on the planet, he said. "That's one for every two people," and more than the number of PCs, cars, televisions, and credit cards, he said.

He lauded the capabilities of Apple's iPhone and what it has done for mobile computing. "The iPhone is really the Mosaic of the mobile Web," opening people's eyes to opportunities on the mobile side the way Mosaic did with browsers, Grigsby said.

[ See InfoWorld's full coverage of the iPhone, including enterprise strategies and security issues, in our special report ]

But the mobile Web is being held back by UI issues and access to the device characteristics on the phone. Standards and performance also are issues.

Grigsby predicted more fracturing, proprietary extensions, and a return to the browsers wars on the device side. There are many different browsers, he said. A lot of mobile browsers are designed around WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) rather than featuring full desktop rendering technology such as JavaScript, Grigsby said.

Web developers, he said, have become bandwidth gluttons, spoiled by high-speed broadband connections they won't have on mobile devices.

In other developments at OSCON:

* Microsoft later this week plans to discuss plans for the upcoming IronRuby 1.0, which is a version of the Ruby programming language compatible with the .Net software development platform.

* Canonical officials said they would introduce version 2.0 of the Launchpad hosting platform for software development projects. The 2.0 version includes a beta Internet services API enabling external applications to authenticate, query, and modify data stored in the Launchpad database programmatically. The Bazaar distributed version control system featured in Launchpad has been enhanced to improve handling of larger code bases.

* The makers of Icecore, which is an open source collaboration platform, are changing the name of the technology to Kablink and adding functionality for workflow. The name change was inspired by the addition of workflow and also is intended to avoid confusion with first-generation technologies, the company said in a statement.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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