Open Source Moves to Phones

Red Hat, 3G Lab to co-develop eCos, an open-source OS for cell phones; portability to Linux in plans

Linux backers are hoping their open-source operating system will end up being the dark horse in the smart-phone operating system race—especially if the other contenders continue to straggle.

Linux leader Red Hat Inc. and 3G Lab last week announced plans to co- develop an open-source operating system for next-generation cell phones. Rather than Linux, the operating system will be based on Red Hats eCos, an open-source system designed to run in small devices such as phones, said officials of Red Hat, in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The combined effort will be known as eCos for 2.5/3G mobile devices.

But company officials said thats just the beginning.

eCos has a series of APIs that can run on eCos or on embedded Linux. As a result, smart-phone functions based on eCos will ultimately be able to be ported to embedded Linux, said Paul Beskeen, director of engineering for Red Hats Embedded Runtime Group, in Cambridge, England.

While eCos is ideal for simple devices because of its small footprint, an operating system based on embedded Linux may be necessary for more complicated smart-phone functions such as personal digital assistant capabilities and complex browsers.

"Linux will play a part in the later part of our strategy," Beskeen said. "Were in discussion with various handset manufacturers and carriers. Currently, were talking about the eCos stuff, but its likely well move to more sophisticated versions based on Linux."

Red Hat and 3G Lab plan to offer hardware, software, support and wireless Internet services, supported by 3G Labs consultancy services, also in Cambridge. The companies will be making public announcements with carrier and handset partners within the next three to six months, officials said, but actual deployment of eCos phones isnt likely before next year.

Initial reaction was mixed. One analyst said some small companies—as well as cell phone makers such as Qualcomm Inc. and Motorola Inc.—have been working with open source, which they like for its price and flexibility. Others say the disjointed nature of open-source development is a hindrance.

Carriers remain the target audience for smart-phone operating system vendors. Red Hat is betting open source will be attractive to carriers because theyll be able to customize the operating system and the phones, giving them an advantage—both functionally and in terms of branding—over phones locked into Microsoft Corp.s operating system, code-named Stinger.

"Carriers really want to have their own branding, their own look through a phone," said Phil Holden, director of marketing for Microsofts Mobility Group, in Redmond, Wash.

Phones based on Stinger are tentatively due for carrier trials later this year. Holden acknowledged, though, that brand name may matter to consumers—not the brand name of the operating system but of the phone—and this could be trouble for Microsoft.

The major names in handset manufacturers—Nokia Corp., Motorola Inc. and Ericsson AB—all support a competing operating system effort called Symbian. Early versions of the smart-phone version of the platform, with advanced browsing and organization functions, have yet to ship.