Consumer Dissatisfaction and the Macroeconomics of Mobility Provide Linux with the Opportunity to Achieve in Mobile What it Failed to Reach on the Desktop: Relevancy.
Last week Verizon Wireless was just the latest big player to jump aboard the Linux train. In joining the LiMo Foundation, “an industry consortium dedicated to creating the first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices,” Verizon joins existing LiMo members Motorola, Samsung, Panasonic, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Orange and Vodafone.
The Google / Verizon Open Access Wars Continue. Verizon’s move is consistent with it’s grudging embrace of “openness,” a relatively recent development and likely result of Google’s aggressive initiatives with their own Linux-based mobile initiative, the Open Handset Alliance (whose members read like a who’s who of the mobile ecosystem), as well as the search giant’s success in influencing the latest US spectrum auction to partially adopt “open access” rules. These rules prohibit the new “owner” of the highly sought-after “C-Block” of wireless spectrum to restrict network access – based on either device or software requirements. This was a landmark ruling by the FCC that upset established business practices by the US operators (especially Verizon Wireless).
Ironically (or by Google’s design, if you buy into the hype) Verizon Wireless, who vigorously pursued legal action against the Google-backed “open access” initiative, is by default its biggest backer, as the carrier ended up spending $9.4 billion to win the auction for the “open” C-Block wireless spectrum. Maybe “ironic” doesn’t quite cut it. “Asleep at the switch?”, “Poetic Justice? or just good old “Machiavellian Legal Mastery?” So much to think about I just can’t get my head even half way around this one… hopefully a “tell-all” book will hit the market and shed some light on what really happened here between Google, Verizon and the FCC.
Regardless, Verizon asserts that among its reasoning for joining the LiMo is that, unlike the Google-led OHA, LiMo software is truly open source (whereas Google maintains a relatively tight grip over its Linux-derived Android Mobile OS). That said, both operating systems are “open enough” in that developers are free to create and distribute highly robust mobile applications unencumbered by (the current) intellectual property and financial barriers maintained by the wireless carriers and (to some extent) the handset manufacturers.
All roads lead to Linux? In addition to all of this, macroeconomic forces also seem to be contributing to an environment favoring Linux as a mobile OS. With the majority of the world’s mobile users living under severely limited economic conditions (i.e. the so-called “developing” world), an open source product such as a Linux-based handset and / or application would enjoy tremendous price advantages versus competing proprietary models – and is therefore far better positioned to compete for the majority of the world’s mobile user base.
While the US mobile industry has yet to feel any real impact resulting from all of these developments, rest assured that big changes are coming – and soon. One only needs to peruse the recently announced finalists in the Android developers challenge to get a sense the coming spike in mobile innovation. The development of rich, life-enhancing applications like Android Scan, a promising app that integrates a traditional barcode reader with existing online databases to facilitate real time product comparisons and m-commerce, would simply not be possible under without an open mobile operating system and business environment unencumbered by powerful gatekeepers.
Now, it might be tempting to dismiss Linux-based mobile initiatives due to the failure of Linux to achieve success on the desktop. The various desktop Linux operating systems also enjoyed the considerable advantages of pricing and of an open development environment, and yet none of them realized anything more than marginal successes. Why should mobile Linux be any different?
The key lies in the differences between the development and limitations of the two channels. When Linux arrived on the market most desktop users were relatively satisfied with the PC computing experience. Sure, Microsoft (and Apple) products had their problems, but most users were content with the functionality and prices associated with the leading PC operating systems and applications. The same cannot be said for the mobile data space, where most users face an entirely opposite scenario: a high (perceived) priced product delivering a wholly unsatisfying experience.
Ultimately, perhaps the walled garden model that worked “well enough” in the desktop space just isn’t up to challenge in the more demanding environment of the mobile data space – a space far more restricted in terms of device size, bandwidth, processor power, memory and display resolution – and is inherently laden with costs far greater than that of traditional wireline data networks. Perhaps it is precisely this challenge that Linux is uniquely suited to overcome, and perhaps this is why Linux – and perhaps only Linux – will be the portal that will finally fulfill the promise of the mobile channel.