Is mobile Linux ready for the enterprise?

Cutting costs by deploying Linux is a well-established strategy on the server and even the desktop, but what effect could it have on the cost of mobile computing?

Very few people lie awake at night fretting over their choice of mobile operating system. In fact, very few people even know what operating system their handset uses.

Yet, despite this probably healthy level of ignorance, a quiet revolution is taking place in the mobile industry. Linux is slowly winding its way onto the smartphone, although no-one is really certain what it will look like when it gets there.

Part of the problem -- although some would no doubt view it as a strength -- is the number of organisations pushing mobile Linux. There are two main industry groupings dedicated to the cause: the Linux Mobile (LiMo) Foundation and the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum. Some companies are members of both. Others belong to one of the groups, but are implementing their own flavours of mobile Linux. It is little wonder that mobile Linux's chances of making inroads in the enterprise space have been played down by some very vocal critics.

Symbian, which has a certain foothold in the enterprise thanks largely to its work with Nokia, took aim at the open-source operating system in July, when its head of enterprise business market development, Andrew Moran, dubbed mobile Linux "fragmentation city" and claimed it was "completely unfeasible" for business use.

Gartner analyst Nick Jones has a more objective stance but he agrees that the platform is not yet consistent or standardised enough to be a serious proposition. "I would advise IT managers not to have anything to do with mobile Linux at this point in time," says Jones. "Imagine I'm an IT manager contemplating standardising on a mobile platform. I want something rich enough to deliver applications, that's available from multiple manufacturers, offering a decent range of handsets with corporate features. Linux just falls down on all of those."

However, those who have thrown their weight behind the movement are confident that it will succeed in an analogous way to Windows Mobile. Bill Weinberg, general manager of business development at the LiPS Forum, certainly sees Microsoft's mobile play as the best point of comparison for mobile Linux as a development platform, although he suggests that "Linux does it with a single code base end to end, not five or six distinct code bases with their own histories and bugs".

"Microsoft has a dominant space because it is very easy to extend corporate applications onto mobiles using Windows Mobile, but we're seeing Linux increasingly adopted as the operating system for use in corporate environments," says Adam Lawson, product director at Trolltech, the company behind the popular open-source development platforms Qt and Qtopia. "We would expect to see that trend extend into the mobile space in good time."

Lawson added that governments in countries such as Brazil and China have officially backed the use of Linux in the public sector, and touted the security of open source as a reason for this broad adoption. "Linux from the word go has been designed as a multi-user operating system," Lawson said. "It is easier to restrict access to particular data files and capabilities and prevent malicious access by third-party applications -- the raw materials for that are available in Linux."

Lawson also thinks that another key strength of Microsoft's -- Windows' ubiquity and the leagues of developers writing for the platform -- could in turn become a strength of the mobile Linux movement. "Microsoft skills are widely available, but Linux is increasingly taught in universities. There are generations of engineers coming out with the relevant skills," he says.

Trolltech's Qtopia application-development platform, which is built on Qt, is geared towards embedded devices and handsets -- notably Skype's internet telephony devices. "IT managers should be thinking about VoIP," says Lawson. "Expect to see Linux and Qtopia appearing on VoIP phones and desk phones -- you are unlikely to see Windows running on a desk phone any time soon."



April 29, 2008 at 6:59 AM

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