EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

LiMo Foundation Exec Morgan Gillis on Mobile Linux, Android and What Lies Ahead

With its Android announcement and formation of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), Google has made it clear that it believes the mobile Internet is the next step in the evolution of the cellular industry.

It has also put increased focus on the applicability of Linux to mobile environments. Android is not the first effort to deploy Linux in a mobile setting, but the power of the Google brand is shining a brighter light on the notion than ever before.

The LiMo Foundation was created just a few months earlier with the goal of establishing the world’s first global, Linux-based software platform for mobile devices. Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile Communications, Samsung Electronics and Vodafone founded LiMo, and the list of member organizations has since grown to 21.

The Future of Mobile Linux

LinuxInsider recently spoke with Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation, about mobile Linux, the Google effect and what it will all mean for users.

LinuxInsider: What spurred the creation of the LiMo Foundation?

Morgan Gillis:

The recent history of the mobile industry has involved the arrival of industry handset platforms — Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and Nokia’s Series 60 being two notable examples. Those platforms arrived because the acceleration in cellular hardware capabilities meant it was no longer viable for individual handset makers to invest in their own internal, proprietary platforms — general business logic supported moving away from those proprietary ones and toward industry platforms.

However, industry has shown a strong disinclination to use the platform offerings available. Microsoft, in the course of about six years with Windows Mobile, has moved up to a run rate volume of about 20 million handsets this year, out of an industry that will ship 1.2 billion handsets — that’s incredibly slow progress. Series 60 has made more progress in terms of volumes, but they’re almost all on Nokia’s own handsets. The industry has not wanted to use Microsoft’s and Nokia’s offerings quite simply because it cares very deeply about the ownership and business models when it comes to who provides a common platform — there’s a general aversion to ceding the handset software platform as a control point to a large single party.

Against that backdrop, the LiMo Foundation was formed by a group of industry leaders that decided to set up an industry software platform under a completely different ownership model. Those handset makers were already successful bringing Linux-based handsets to market, but within the LiMo venture they have decided to combine their Linux-based software assets into a single platform, and to make it available to the whole industry under open source licensing.

It’s important to be very clear here that LiMo is not an industry standards body — it’s very different from those types of organizations. Rather, our focus is on producing a real software platform that anyone can use in handsets or in developing applications or services on top of them.

LinuxInsider: What are LiMo’s near- and long-term plans?

Gillis:

Our goals for this first year fall into three areas. First, we want to complete the software platform in its release 1 form, and we’re on schedule to do that by the end of this year. Second, we want to engage the industry with LiMo, and we believe we’re moving very quickly in that area as well: We’ve moved from six founding members to 21 today, including important names such as LG Electronics, SoftBank Mobile, Broadcom and Wind River.

Finally, in this first year we also want to deliver handsets using our platforms into the hands of consumers. Just this week, we announced the first two LiMo-powered handsets — the N905 from NEC and the P905 from Panasonic. We’re very pleased that we’re going to achieve this goal as well, bringing those handsets to consumers in the middle of December.

Overall, one of LiMo’s nearer-term goals is to provide a handset platform for all parts of the value system. Looking ahead, a bigger objective is to cross-platformize from the mobile industry into other categories that are also beginning to use Linux as foundation technology. We’re very interested in consumer electronics and automotive, for example, and hope to make inroads there within the next five years. If you look at the profiles of some of our founding organizations, you can see this is very logical — NEC, Panasonic and Samsung, for instance, are all very strong consumer electronics companies.

LinuxInsider: Why is Linux emerging as a platform of choice in the mobile space?

Gillis:

Linux is a good technology, and it has very good scalability, which we believe will enable us to take it right up into the high-end smartphone categories and all the way down into the very high-volume midrange categories. But actually, that’s not the most important thing.

The most important thing about mobile Linux is that it’s not owned by any one industry party, and therefore it can be adopted without any difficult business model conflicts. If you’re a handset maker and want to use Windows Mobile, for example, Microsoft might have a bigger business agenda that doesn’t reflect what you want to do. Using Series 60 from Nokia, the largest handset maker in the industry, on the other hand, might not be a smart thing to do either. Linux gets around issues like that.

LinuxInsider: What is your reaction to the forming of the Open Handset Alliance?

Gillis:

We’re warmly and publicly welcoming the OHA. The reason we’re doing that is because it is very different from LiMo. Google’s background and focus within mobile are on the user experience and, in particular, on bringing the next generation of mobile Internet experience to consumers. It’s very positive for us that Google has chosen to base its end-user focus on mobile Linux — this is yet another large player that has validated mobile Linux as the base technology for handsets.

But while Google’s focus is on consumers and the user experience, LiMo’s focus is on the middleware — the layer of technology that sits beneath the user experience layer. LiMo is really catalyzing next-generation user experiences on mobile Linux from whomever they may originate.

So there is a very elegant dovetailing between Google and LiMo in terms of our respective areas of focus. There is also great synergy in terms of the prominent members that are involved in both groups.

LinuxInsider: Do you think there might be ways the OHA and LiMo could work together?

Gillis:

I think collaboration would be very logical, and convergence would be plausible in the sense of having common, formally linked road maps. This is not Linux vs. Linux — this is Google vs. Microsoft.

LinuxInsider: What will be the “Google effect” on all this? That is, what will Google’s play in the space mean and how does it change the mobile ecosystem?

Gillis:

I think there will be substantial changes as a result of Google’s arrival into mobile. In particular, I think Google has a great capacity to help the industry deliver the next generation of mobile Internet experiences. Today most of us can access the Internet on our handsets, but it’s not a particularly delightful experience. That’s a wide-open opportunity for some party who really knows about delivering Internet-based services to shape this, and make the mobile Internet really compelling for ordinary users.

Google has a great capacity to do that, and to raise the bar in the user experience. So parties within the industry now have a choice: Work with Google, or think very seriously about how to achieve the next-generation mobile Internet experience for their customers on their own.

LinuxInsider: How realistic are Google’s publicized plans?

Gillis:

Google has some significant challenges to overcome in order to achieve its objectives — primarily in terms of how it engages in a practical way with the mobile industry, both operators and handset makers. This is an important change of direction for Google because in the desktop world, the Internet was completely open, and Google was able to build this great desktop-based business without really working through the PC industry — it went straight over the top.

But the mobile environment is more closed — networks are more closed and the handsets are more closed. So to reach mobile consumers, Google has to work with the industry and work out business models that will be attractive for operators and handset makers. In a way, Google is moving from a very successful B-to-C play into a B-to-B play as it moves into mobile.

LinuxInsider: What are your thoughts on Google’s interest in the 700MHz band of wireless spectrum?

Gillis:

I don’t think they will buy spectrum — this is more about FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) than anything else. If they were to do so, they would place themselves in a position of direct competition with other operators, with which it needs to work collaboratively. It would make the challenge harder, not easier.

LinuxInsider: What needs to happen next in the cellular marketplace?

Gillis:

I think what needs to happen next is that the mobile Internet experience needs to be made far more compelling for real consumers. It’s the relevance of the applications and services to the lives of real consumers, and it’s the form in which the content is delivered onto the device. The content has to be delivered in a much faster and more concise way such that the experience becomes relevant and useful and enjoyable, rather than a novelty experience, which wears off quickly.

LinuxInsider: Between LiMo and Android, do you think this can realistically be achieved?

Gillis:

Yes, I do.

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