Editorial: The Chaos of Incompatibility in Mobile Linux

Linux has one, last, chance to become the No1 OS in a particular consumer-oriented market (not counting servers): the mobile phone market. The open nature and yes, the hype around Linux has made lots of mobile-oriented companies to consider using Linux for their next-generation cellphones. But there is a major problem on the way to success, a problem which is created not by Linux itself, but by the greed and close-mindness of these same companies that endorse Linux.Note: Please excuse the tone of this editorial, but I write this after 2 years of frustration with my Linux phones.

“Linux gives manufacturers and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) complete control,” Trolltech said today in a UK conference. “We believe we are just now at the beginning of a revolution” they said afterwards.

What Trolltech failed to mention was that each of the FOUR different Linux cellphone initiatives, plus TWO more other companies who develop with Linux for their cellphone software, are completely incompatible (LinuxDevices.com has a list of all these initiatives). And here we are, in year 2006, with at least SIX different implementations of Linux/Qt/other-API that are neither binary or source compatible with each other. This situation is even worse than the current desktop Linux distro issues, where distros are somewhat compatible, but not completely. Each cellphone software maker and initiative is pulling its own way and creates extreme fragmentation.

Some will argue that “Linux is freedom, and that this fragmentation and incompatibility is among the accepted parameters”. Maybe for some it is, but for me and many others, who are Linux users and advocates of standards and usability, it’s not. The last thing I want as a user is having my brother telling me “I got a Linux phone and I downloaded this great Free native application. Want me to send it to you?”, only to realize that the application is not compatible at all with my (also heavily hyped and advertised as) Linux phone.

And yet, all the manufacturers of these phones will jump up and down the couch in excitement (just like Tom Cruise) that “our phones are running Linux, buy them!”. As a user, I gain nothing from this situation. And in the long run, none of these companies will gain nothing either. Because they will have failed to create a PLATFORM around Linux, a platform that can compete with Symbian and Windows Mobile. Instead, they will have nothing but small, weak implementations of a GUI on top of a Montavista Linux kernel. Big deal. In the meantime, smartphones will be outselling normal phones and consumers will be on the look out for native applications to enrich their phones. These users don’t want to fall into the same crapshoot they currently are wtih Linux distros. They would want uniformity, they would seek compatibility.

And then, there is the developer issue. Developers don’t want to have to rewrite, debug and publish for 6 different Linux-based OSes and GUIs. They will be forced to either not bother at all, or to simply write their app in the non-native Java language. And we all know the limitations and ugliness of J2ME.

If you are a Linux enthusiast and you would like to see Linux become a powerful mobile platform rather than become a forked-like-hell implementation throwing itself left and right depending on some companies’ wishes, then write to them and ask them to form an aliance that includes all existing aliances.

And if you are writing to Motorola, tell them to also release their EZX SDK so developers can start writing apps for these phones (no, their recently publisized Linux source code did not include their Qt-Embedded but highly modified EZX that sits on top of Qt). Right now, the 2-3 third party EZX GUI apps that have been released are all based on a old leaked SDK and on a lot of reverse engineering. The whole situation with Motorola’s EZX (supposedly “smart”)phones is just sad. Their usual moto of “we just want java apps” is very limiting for most of us. In fact, the big boss of the Motorola-Linux department is a 100% java person, who has even written books about java and who avoids replying to my straight forward interview question “is the EZX SDK going to be freely released for the E680i/A780/A1200 models?”. He somehow thinks that Java is the future and that native apps are “bad” (except 4-5 third party native apps that have been paid by Motorola for a port, e.g. Opera, Real Player). Honestly, both as a hobby journalist, developer and a long time Motorola-Linux cellphone user, I’ve had it with them. They just don’t get what people want on a “smart”phone (especially one with a bloody touchscreen). You don’t believe me? It has already happened!

Lastly, a few days ago Motorola made a PR about “Mobile Industry Leaders to Create World’s First Globally Adopted Open Mobile Linux Platform”. They only forgot to tell us that neither the PalmSource, Mizi Research, or OSDL initiatives are part of this “globally adopted platform”. There is NO “globally adopted platform”.

Fragmentation is inevitable. And no, I am not an optimistic person. Too bad for Linux though. It had a great opportunity right there to create a universal compatible platform, instead of millions of incompatible implementations.

My A780 review
My E680i review

Here are the 4 questions I sent and re-sent at Motorola exces/PR people with no answer so far (in comparison, such technical questions are usually answered without hesitation from Linux distro execs):

1. Will both the touchscreen-based (e.g. Ming A1200) and “Chameleon” interface (e.g. Rokr-2) Linux UIs continue to be developed? Are these two graphical environments API or source compatible or are they completely different (and just happened to be both based on Qt Embedded)?
2. Do you have plans to release the SDKs for these two interfaces to third party and enthusiast developers for free, like Palm, Nokia and Microsoft do? If not, why not? (*please note that Qt Embedded’s SDK alone is not enough to
develop an EZX/Chameleon native application*)
3. Will the Chameleon-based platform become the default platform for your future consumer phones, replacing the operating system usually running on the RAZR and the rest of your US consumer series?
4. Is the browser of your choice for your future cellphones Opera, Netfront or Openwave? What it’s going to happen to your in-house MiB browser?


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