The Year of the Linux Desktop Mobile Phone

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Since its creation, over fifteen years ago, free software and open source advocates have longed for the day when masses of people around the world would adopt GNU/Linux or Linux (depending on who you ask). There is little doubt that the past five years have seen tremendous strides in Linux desktop adoption.

Some hardware vendors, such as Dell, now sell Linux desktop computers, although you have to page through their online catalog to find it, and their promotion of it seems spotty at best. The netbook craze has also seen the rise of several Linux offerings, but even the company that arguably started the netbook craze with its Eee PCs, Asus, still proudly displays “Better with Windows” on their website.

According to some estimates, there are now more Linux desktop computers in the world than Apple computers running Mac OS X. Most of them are in countries outside the United States, however, where some countries have issued large scale adoption for their government offices. Still, the recognition of Apple’s product line is better known, and services and software vendors are still more inclined to support Apple before they support Linux (take Netflix’s Watch Now service as an example).

t-mobile-mytouch-scaledDespite all of those setbacks, Linux has begun to ascend in an entirely different arena: the mobile phone market. The number of Linux-based phones has not only surpassed the “handful” mark, some of them are now becoming serious contenders. Google shifted the playing field when it released Android, an open-source Linux-based mobile operating system. Android-based phones (including their MyTouch G3) are featured prominently on mobile carrier websites (see T-Mobile’s website).

The world was rocked yet again when Palm released its long anticipated Palm Pre. Just when people had all but left Palm for dead, the Palm Pre has become highly competitive in mobile sales. Its WebOS is a revolutionary Linux-based operating system that has drawn gawking even from iPhone users.

Now, another major vendor is entering the Linux fold in a big way. Nokia, which is still the world’s leading smartphone seller, has invested years of research and financial backing into development of the open source Maemo operating system. It powered the Nokia 770, N800, and N810, all of which were not phones. The release of the N900, however, could very well solidify Linux’s position in the mobile market.

Rather than a Linux whim, like that of Asus or Dell, Nokia seems poised to make Maemo their OS of choice. Their recent acquisition of Trolltech highlights this. Trolltech was responsible for the QT graphical user interface and framework that powers KDE (a Linux desktop environment) and the Opera web browser, among other software. Nokia is in it for the long-haul, and the N900 will most likely be the first of many maemo-based mobile phones.  Furthermore, Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian, which makes the most prominent mobile operating system, has committed to releasing Symbian OS under an open source license.

Will Android, WebOS, and Maemo surpass other operating systems in the cellphone market? Will other smartphone manufactures follow? (Motorola is now shipping Linux-based phones, among others). The writing seems to be on the wall, so I am calling it. 2009 will be the year of the Linux mobile phone. There…I said it. I don’t even know what it really means, but I do know the game has changed.

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