As mobile telecoms slowly embrace Linux and Google's Android, many are keeping at least one wary eye on a safe...
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The two most prominent open platform choices right now for operators are Android, backed by the Open Handset Alliance, and LiMo, short for Linux Mobile and backed by the LiMo Foundation. The two projects have very different goals, but both might be important to wireless strategies over the next several years.
Both phone platforms, which are based on the open source and freely distributable Linux operating system, offer appealing features to operators, such as low or no licensing fees and the ability to easily customize the experience for the user.
They also offer an ability to incrementally move to platforms more open to end-user modification, whether by running applications on top of the operating system (OS) or giving power users the ability to tinker with and recompile the underlying code. After years of working hard to prevent just this scenario, major telecoms are now embracing it as inevitable and not necessarily all bad.
But while the source code of Android will be open, the development has been largely Google-driven, which has given some cause for worry.
"I think it's a positive that Google is moving towards a Linux-based, open approach for their platform," said Andrew Shikiar, director of global marketing for the LiMo Foundation. "But at the end of the day it's a closed program they'll throw over the wall to the open source community to debug."
LiMo is not, at least in the immediate future, going to be directly competing with Android. It is aimed at high-end feature phones and lacks the full stack that Android offers. Despite this, Tom Nolle, president of strategic consulting firm CIMI Corp. said LiMo was important as leverage for the operators as they partner with one of the world's most influential technology companies.
"When Google came along with Android, it created a dilemma," Nolle said. It was an easy, immediate answer to Apple's threat, but Google could well be an even worse long-term challenge. "If Google won't play ball … [LiMo] gives us an alternative."
Despite their lingering mistrust, operators are diving in, and Linux-based devices are expected to proliferate. ABI Research recently projected that Linux devices would gain 20% of the midlevel and smartphone market by 2013.At this year's Mobile World Congress, 17 LiMo phones were previewed, and Android recently announced 50 winners of its application development contest.
Because Android's Open Handset Alliance, which both Sprint and Verizon recently joined, is largely Google-driven, it has received serious publicity and developer excitement long before the first Android phones hit the market later this year.
Android is also a complete phone stack, unlike LiMo which provides just the middleware. That means various Android phones will have a similar user interface and applications will be cross-compatible.
Android is extremely appealing to operators because it gives them leverage in pushing the features they want on phones without having to rely on any one of the current mobile OS makers to agree.
"I think the carrier really wants a platform they can influence," said Rich Miner, Google's vice president for mobile. "It's very hard to do that if somebody else owns the platform."
"They're just testing the waters at this point," Nolle said. "What everybody is trying to figure out is how much money can I make on something vs. how much money is it going to cost to run it."
Part of the impetus is the drying up of voice revenue, Nolle said. Many major carriers have begun offering unlimited talk plans, and cost-per-minute of voice continues to go down. To replace this lost revenue, operators are scrambling to devise new services that they can charge a premium for, services that an open, easily modifiable handset would facilitate.
"We believe in helping people do what they want when they want -- like download music over the air, play a game, send an email, surf the Web -- and an open approach helps make that possible," wrote Sprint spokesperson Jenny Walsh in an e-mail.
Many of those services, such as music downloading and game playing, are the exact kind of services telecoms are looking to use replace lost revenue, alongside harnessing location-based services and even customer demographic data for targeted advertising.
Nolle said the embrace of openness is also a partial response to Apple's iPhone, currently exclusively available through AT&T in the United States, which has shaken up customer expectations and has set competing operators scrambling for their own blockbuster devices.
"One of the challenges is that if someone like Apple comes along and they're into the market early with a remarkable cache, everyone envisions that in the future, they own [the market]," Nolle said. He compared it to how, in the 60s and 70s, competing firms saw Unix as a way to break IBM's hegemony. "The thing that made Unix popular is the rest of the computer vendors banded together, and they got behind a system that could be ported everywhere."
Seeing the potential for Apple dominating the wireless landscape, with service providers relegated to a backseat role, has helped prod the usually slow-paced industry into a bit of a development frenzy.