Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style

So after all the hype, it’s not a Gphone but a Linux-based platform for mobile devices and an industry alliance. There are more questions than answers raised by the Android announcement, and from an open source perspective there are two big ones:

How does this compare to the existing mobile Linux initiatives?

It’s not as if the world is starved for mobile Linux platform alliances. Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile Communications, Samsung Electronics, and Vodafone announced the formation of the LiMo Foundation in January 2007 with the goal of creating a Linux-based software platform for mobile devices.

There is also the LiPS Forum, which was formed by France Telecom, PalmSource ARM, Cellon, Esmertec, FSMLabs, Huawei Technologies, Jaluna, MIZI Research, Montavista Software, and Open-Plug to develop standardized application programming interfaces to define Linux-based services for mobile phones.

Meanwhile the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum, was formed in July 2003 by Sony, Hitachi, NEC, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, and Panasonic and has a Mobile Phone Profile Working Group which has been working since late in 2004 on a common API for mobile phone functionality.

Then there is the Linux Foundation’s Mobile Linux Initiative, which was set up to accelerate adoption of Linux on mobile handsets and other portable devices and to provide a mobile profile for the Linux Standards Base.

Then of course there are a number of commercial mobile Linux platform and open source software vendors/projects, including Trolltech, Funambol, and OpenMoko.

So is the Android project reinventing the wheel? There certainly appears to be overlap with the LiMo Foundation. For its part, LiMo says:

“LiMo and the Open Handset Alliance, in fact, share membership across the mobile Linux ecosystem. There are no philosophical or technological obstacles preventing LiMo and the Open Handset Alliance from working together synergistically.”

That is no doubt the answer you would expect to see, although the point about sharing members is a good one. Even if Google feels like replicating some effort, joint OHA/LiMo members will probably not be so keen.

One such member is Wind River. It’s chief marketing officer, John Bruggeman, told Stephen Shankland: “LiMo, very candidly, wasn’t moving fast enough. There’s nothing like a good announcement like this that will get you back, focused, and get you to speed up.”

Shankland also got some insight from LiMo executive director, Morgan Gillis on how the two could work together. “Google’s focus is on the mobile user experience and LiMo’s focus is on the underlying middleware platform,” he said.
Over at the Linux Foundation, Bill Weinberg also welcomed Google to the mobile Linux party, even if he does have some doubts about the impact it will make:

“The Android platform and the accompanying Open Mobile Alliance may constitute another Linux ‘knitting circle’, or could represent the tipping point for mobile Linux and a unifying force in a fragmented space. In either case, having a company like Google with a visible commitment to Open Source behind Linux in mobile raises the atmospheric pressure,” he wrote.

How open is open?

It is interesting to note that although Android is based on the GPL-licensed Linux kernel, the software stack will be released under the Apache v2 license.

“The Apache license allows manufacturers and mobile operators to innovate using the platform without the requirement to contribute those innovations back to the open-source community. Because these innovations and differentiated features can be kept proprietary, manufacturers and mobile operators are protected from the “viral infection” problem often associated with other licenses,” reads the FAQ.

Stephen O’Grady, quite reasonably, wonders how this is possible while others are concerned that the license choice will actually give more power to carriers to lock down phones to run only the services they want to provide.

“Manufacturers and carriers are free to use Android to make crippled, locked-down phones full of proprietary, closed software,” notes Sasha Segan over at PC Magazine.

“Verizon or AT&T could conceivably launch their own gPhones, tap into a fast-growing global developer community, and cherry pick the apps they want to allow on their devices, and then ship them with all the restrictions they currently use on their other handsets. How would Google prevent this?” wonders Stephen Wellman at InformationWeek.

The Android FAQ suggests they might be right:

“Because the Apache license does not have a copyleft clause, industry players can add proprietary functionality to their products based on Android without needing to contribute anything back to the platform. As the entire platform is open, companies can remove functionality if they choose. Applications are not set in stone, and differentiation is always possible.”

Then again, while these are the biggest questions from an open source standpoint, there is an argument that to focus on the open source nature of the announcement is to miss the point entirely.

“This isn’t about open source; ultimately, it’s about ad delivery,” notes The 451 Group’s mobility research director, Tony Rizzo. “While the open source community may applaud a company of Google’s stature jumping into the fray, its motives are hardly altruistic. The company sees an opportunity to deliver huge numbers of ads to mobile users.”

Subscribers can read Tony’s take on the announcement and its implications for the mobile industry here.

10 comments ↓

#1 Iphone | Apple | Mac Blog » Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style on 11.06.07 at 11:04 am

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#2 Apple Blog » Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style on 11.06.07 at 11:06 am

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#3 Marketing Research » Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style on 11.06.07 at 11:53 am

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#4 Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style — Google Android on 11.06.07 at 12:43 pm

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#5 Raven Zachary on 11.07.07 at 10:54 am

Sorry, everyone. This post vanished on Tuesday for awhile and we’re not sure why.

#6 Roberto Galoppini on 11.07.07 at 5:00 pm

Matthew, I share most of your opinions on the subject. As I wrote in my post we have already been seeing technological clubs failing to share a standard (see symbian), but google could learn from the past. They put together many partners, and the apache license proved to be effective within some communities (I still remember Oracle deriving its own dialect of Apache many years ago, eventually failing at). After all OEM got used to symbian/windows mobile licenses, allowing them to make their own flavors. Will google be able to prevent the centripetal force? We shall soon see..

#7 Matthew Aslett on 11.08.07 at 4:14 am

Roberto, Interesting ti see you mention lessons from Symbian’s past. As you say – can Google be the independent party that holds all this together? It will be an interesting test of its position.

#8 Patrick on 11.12.07 at 9:19 am

A good place to discuss everything Android mobile is http://www.androidmobileforum.com

#9 Reinventing the Linux phone, Google-style | open moko on 11.20.07 at 4:25 pm

[…] Read the rest of this great post here […]

#10 451 CAOS Theory » Who will follow Funambol’s open source SaaS steps? on 06.08.08 at 6:23 pm

[…] the company’s extensive use of and support for open source software. If Google’s recent Android release is any indication, it is unlikely to look to AGPLv3, GPLv3 or any other GPL licensing anytime soon. […]