Open source in a world without wire

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Nokia, the world’s largest maker of mobile phones, announced in June that it was working with Apple to develop an open source software-based mobile web browser for its Series 60 platform used in smartphones.

The browser, which will be available in the first half of 2006, will use the same open source components that are the foundation of Apple’s popular Safari internet browser, including WebCore and JavaScriptCore.

The amended Series 60 platform, which contains the user interface and all other applications as well as browsing, will continue to run on top of the operating system developed by Symbian. Nokia itself had shipped 25m Series 60 devices by the end of May.

The announcement came three weeks after Nokia launched the 770 Internet Tablet, a dedicated widescreen device – without telephony – which uses a Linux-based operating system.

The tablet can be used to access internet and e-mail services via a built-in WiFi connection or a Bluetooth link to a compatible mobile phone. It is due to start shipping shortly.

Jyrki Rosenberg, director of strategic marketing at Nokia’s Technology Platforms business group, says this is the first time Nokia has chosen to use open source software as an integral part of selected mobile devices.

Previously, it relied almost entirely on proprietary software, its own or Symbian’s. The move reflects its view that open source software is now sufficiently mature and trustworthy for some of these purposes too.

Mr Rosenberg argues that Nokia will now be able to take advantage of the strengths of open source software. “The use of the new browser will provide an improved user experience when browsing full web pages from mobile devices,” he says.

Its flexibility and extensibility will also allow manufacturers that use the Series 60 platform to further innovate and customise the browser, for example to meet their operator customer needs.

But Nokia will continue to rely on Symbian as the operating system for smartphones and will use Linux-based operating systems only for browser-type devices such as the tablet which do not offer cellular connectivity.

The company was already supporting open source software for mobiles through initiatives such as the Python open source programming language for Series 60-based devices. And it has been using open source software in network equipment such as servers since 1999.

Other handset makers are also using open source software, and most of the rest are likely to follow, not least because it is royalty-free.

Motorola started using Linux-based operating systems in 2003 in products such as the A780 smartphone. NEC uses Linux in the 900iL, the first commercial cellular handset to offer WLan connectivity and IP telephony support. Samsung has demonstrated a prototype 3G smartphone using a Linux kernel (or core) developed by MontaVista Software, the US company which is the main distributor of phone-specific Linux.

Matt Lewis, director of ARC Chart, the London-based wireless industry analysts, notes that Linux has been given a significant boost this year by PalmSource’s acquisition of China MobileSoft (CMS), a leading Chinese mobile phone software company which has also developed a Linux kernel optimised for handhelds.

PalmSource a new range of devices which would use this core platform with the Palm operating system running on top.

Karl Havers, technology partner at Ernst & Young, agrees that open source software offers several advantages.

It enables the interoperability of devices and systems far more readily than does proprietary software, it offers greater flexibility and ease of development and it should make it easier to move towards producing converged rather than multiple devices.

But he warns that there are disadvantages too. There can be issues of performance and security. And it can be harder to patch up problems quickly when these arise.

On the other hand, openness can be a benefit from a security point of view because users can be made fully aware of exactly how their information is being protected, which is not the case with proprietary software.

These views are echoed by Benoit Schillings, chief technology officer for the handset software division at Openwave, the software company that last month announced it had shipped its mobile browser in more than 1bn handsets worldwide.

He adds that if there are quality problems with open source software it is unclear where the liability for this lies. Moreover, there tends not to be someone in charge of development who has a view of what product they are seeking to create, what the customer expectations will be and how these should best be addressed.

“While open source software can offer a good start,” he says, “the manufacturer usually has to redraft a lot of it in order to do anything useful with it.”

Nevertheless, says Mr Schillings, the advantages are inevitably pushing manufacturers down the Linux route – and not only for smartphones, which remain relatively low-volume products.

He argues that the real revenue opportunity lies in mainstream “dataphones” and that Linux will also take off here.

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