Linux in Hand

Lycoris release could lead to wider mobile adoption.

Its been about eight years since Palm Computing launched its first Pilots and brought handheld computing into the mainstream, yet many companies are still asking themselves how mobile devices fit into their computing plans.

With the amount of power thats available, youd think handhelds would be firmly enmeshed in more enterprises. Todays handheld computers are capable of a lot more than theyre doing—Dells $300 Axim X3 sports a 400MHz processor, 64MB of RAM and built-in Wi-Fi. However, while we now have a crop of mobile devices powered like general-purpose computers, these devices are often stuck serving as single-purpose appliances.

I place much of the blame for the underutilization of these devices on a rats nest of disparate, device-specific operating system platforms and application development frameworks. Microsoft, PalmSource and Symbian each offers multiple versions of competing platforms, and each is tied tightly to the hardware on which it ships.

Although useful handheld applications certainly exist, theres a general stagnation in development. Its striking, for instance, how little Microsoft has improved its Pocket Office applications over the years and how often device users, regardless of their chosen platform, must purchase an entirely new device to pick up some new bit of software functionality.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the best way to get mobile application development on a smoother track is to add another platform into the mix, but the emergence of Linux as a mobile platform could help.

Unlike the mobile platforms from Microsoft, PalmSource and Symbian, handheld and embedded Linux kernel development is closely tied to desktop and server systems as well. Due in part to the continuity among handheld, desktop and server flavors of Linux and to the kudzulike nature of open-source software, there is a wide range of applications for Linux on mobile devices, many of which began life as applications for full-size systems.

The Linux development community is large and active, and software projects that enable enthusiasts to turn almost any handheld device into a functional Linux system have been maturing nicely over the last few years.

Motorola and Samsung ship Linux-based smart phones in Asia, and Sharp has been selling full-featured, Linux-based handheld computers under the Zaurus mark for a couple of years now, so its not as though Linux is totally new to mobile devices. Still, persuading handheld computer makers to shift to a new platform can be a hard sell—handheld Linux will have to prove itself before enjoying a broader OEM embrace.

In what could prove a successful end run around direct OEM support, desktop Linux distributor Lycoris has announced plans to begin selling a Linux distribution for handheld devices such as Sharps Zaurus and Compaqs iPaq next quarter.

The distribution, which Lycoris is calling Desktop/LX Pocket PC Edition, will run a version of the 2.4 Linux kernel and a standard suite of PDA applications. The products GUI will hail from Trolltechs Qtopia, the embedded version of the Qt application framework on which the popular K Desktop Environment is built.

It remains to be seen how well Lycoris will manage the installation process, in which the platform that shipped on a devices flash ROM is blown away and replaced by the new operating system. The process can be rather tricky and presents a risk of rendering a device unusable. As with earlier, preproductized incarnations of Linux on the desktop and server, installation of handheld Linux has been one of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption.

En route to Linuxs current position of strength in the server world and its strengthening presence as a desktop operating system, distributions of the Linux operating system began as projects and branched into products. The same process is now happening with handheld Linux. The project-to-product model has been working with server and desktop systems because it provides users and companies with more choice and more vigorous competition, and it might be just the trick for helping us all get more out of our mobile devices.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at