Symbian vs. Linux: Who Will Win in Wireless?

Operating systems do make a difference in mobile phones, writes Wireless Center Editor Guy Kewney-and Linux is looking stronger every day.

It was Scott McNealy who made fun of me, a couple of short years back, for suggesting that users might care what operating system was inside their mobile phones. "You just switch it on!" he said. Not for the first time, Sun Microsystems CEO was living in the past.

These days, you have a choice between a dumb phone or a smart phone. On both sides, the features are getting complex, and you do care whether the phone runs Symbian, for example; or Microsoft Windows Mobile; or Linux. And yes, Linux is starting to be the real threat.

The fact that Motorola has sold its stake in Symbian has been seen by some as a sign that the market for operating systems is about to "mature" in the phone business. Anything is possible, but the real reason Motorola is selling its stock is simply that it can. Symbian is five years old, and that means that the original stakeholders can sell their shares.

As to why Motorola wants the money more than the stock, the answer is probably terribly simple: Motorola is a hardware manufacturer, and it doesnt want to be seen as having a bias against those who provide software.

Theres a more specific reason for Motorolas position: The company wants to sell mobile cell phones to the Chinese market. Chinas rulers have made it entirely clear that they want Linux, that they definitely dont want Microsoft, and that they cant really see the point of Symbian. And (these leaders might wonder) why is Motorola a 19 percent shareholder in a software company, anyway? Is it because Motorola executives are in some way skeptical about Linux?

In those circumstances, Id sell my Symbian stock, too. China is looking like a bigger and bigger market for mobile devices, and (even more to the point, perhaps) the source of most device manufacturing for the next decade. And of course, it isnt even slightly skeptical about Linux.

Neither is Motorola.

In public, Motorola is still saying that all three operating systems are equal. Indeed, it has a fourth up its sleeve, with its close relationship with Tao Systems and a fifth, if you accept Java as an OS in its own right.

But behind the scenes in Motorolas Chicago cell-phone headquarters, the word is Linux. Two months ago, Motorola joined its Metrowerks subsidiary in the OpenPDA project, with Metrowerks agreeing to ship Linux development tools for the Motorola variant of the ARM processor. In February, the company announced its first Linux-based, third-generation super-phone—shipping this month into Europe. And it has an ordinary GSM phone that uses Linux for sale in the Far East, but that model isnt expected to be shown in Europe or America for some time.

It does matter what operating system your phone uses. Over the next few months, one of the themes of this column will be to focus on the demands being placed on mobile IT hardware by complex design. And the challenges of managing a local personal area network of interconnected devices—camera, keyboard, display, voice, even games console and wristwatch devices—will loom large in the buying decision process.

And as to whether the Santa Cruz lawyers think they can put the squeeze on the Chinese government if they win their Linux suit, your guess is as good as mine ... but Im not going to bet heavily on their chances if its my own money at stake. Im not saying this is whats on Motorolas mind here, but youd have to be foolish not to weigh that up, wouldnt you?

Guy Kewney is among Europes best-known IT writers, having covered the PC and communications businesses since the mid-1970s in print, on TV and radio, and latterly on the Web. He has regular columns for Personal Computer World, IT Week, and The Register, and is editor of www.NewsWireless.Net—and has more portable and mobile bits and pieces than anybody could carry, including his own portable Wi-Fi access point and three different cellular data cards. His objective is to be omnipresent on the Internet.

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