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Reality Check: Making mobile Linux work

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our weekly Reality Check column. We’ve gathered a group of visionaries and veterans in the mobile industry to give their insights into the marketplace.
The variety of Linux-oriented initiatives and activities in the mobile industry, including the recent announcement from Nokia and Intel regarding the formation of MeeGo, clearly reaffirms the fact that Linux will be the technology that underpins a large proportion of next-generation mobile devices. In fact, leading analyst firms predict that between 30-40% of smartphones shipped will be based on Linux by 2015. This column addresses a few key issues pertaining to this growth in mobile Linux including the need for consolidation at the core level of the mobile software stack, the choice of Linux as the technology that will be common across a large array of mobile devices of various form factors and the business models around mobile Linux.
The rationale for consolidation
The convergence of general computing and embedded computing is giving rise to both challenges and opportunities. There is a need for a common software base that can be used across multiple form factors and in multiple embedded systems in order for the vision of the connected digital world to become reality. Currently, the diversity at the lower level of the software stack is proving to be a waste for the industry due to duplication and inefficiencies – it would therefore, be natural for the common software base to focus on the lower level, non-differentiating parts of the stack. By harmonizing kernels and the Linux layer, OEMs and operators have the opportunity to focus their resources on innovating and differentiating in the software and service areas that matter most – User Interface and User Experience.
A common core Linux software stack enables semiconductors to easily support multiple distributions, reduces the times to market and bill of materials for OEMs, enables better performance and lowers support costs for all stakeholders. It is also simpler for the users of the core Linux software platform to implement upstreaming to ensure that they are using the latest and most optimized version of code available while setting up a mechanism for bringing innovation created in the open source world into the device platform. The economies of scale that result from leveraging a core Linux stack not only translate into more affordable consumer products but also cheaper tools for testing and integrating software.
Linux equally stands to play a pivotal role in the converged landscape of online communications, entertainment and information which is leading to the creation of mobile devices of various form factors, including phones, netbooks, tablets, smartbooks, etc. Linux, by virtue of its rich history in the embedded space, its scalability and the large number of APIs it shares with the desktop and enterprise solutions, is positioned as the ideal technology to reside at the foundation of these converged mobile devices. Consolidation at the core Linux base is thus even more crucial in a multi-form factor mobile space not only to realize economies of scale but also to ensure seamless portability of applications and a consistent user experience across multiple screens.
The business perspective
Currently, the mobile business model is being completely turned on its head, whereby both hardware and software can be obtained for free. This creates the imperative for mobile value chain participants to build value around the free software and hardware. The flexibility and customization capabilities of a common, core Linux platform can be leveraged to develop and deliver entirely new kinds of services on the free hardware and software.
In today’s extremely competitive mobile marketplace, one way for operators and service providers to stand out and provide unique and differentiating offers is to create their own ecosystems around Linux-based devices and services that leverage a common core platform. By utilizing a common core mobile Linux platform, operators and service providers can integrate their own existing services, or create new services, around the concept of “always on and always-connected” mobile devices. A core Linux base also enables operators and service providers to provide cross-device interoperability so that the same services work together seamlessly across multiple devices.
Conclusion
Mobile revenue models are no longer about selling bits but rather about providing services, and a common mobile Linux software foundation will help all participants in the mobile marketplace take part in this service-oriented economy. There are still a few issues that need to be solved before the industry achieves full coordination and consolidation of mobile Linux technologies. Governance, licensing, the availability of high quality, stable releases and tools are some of the factors that will determine how fast and to what extent a common core Linux base is adopted by stakeholders within the mobile industry. The most sensible approach would be to start with a minimal common set and grow the core as the different user environments grow. The platform should be technically, commercially and socially acceptable for stakeholders to adopt and needs to be underpinned by a governance model that appeals to the entire ecosystem.
As Director of Global Marketing for LiMo Foundation, Andrew Shikiar is responsible for helping develop and articulate LiMo’s vision and market strategy. Shikiar possesses significant strategic marketing and business development expertise in cutting-edge technologies and market-shifting industry initiatives.He served as Membership Director for industry consortia the Liberty Alliance Project and Blade.org. At Sun Microsystems he helped drive the company’s Java and Liberty Alliance launch initiatives. In addition, he was a founding executive at Radical Communication, where he helped raise nearly $20 million in venture financing and drove market adoption of interactive video and email marketing technology solutions.

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