Although Linux is widely used in mobile phones, particularly smartphones, efforts to make the open source operating system more mobile-friendly have, until recently, been largely dispersed.
Google had its Android project, Nokia had Maemo, Intel had Moblin, and a number of other players including Samsung had their own Linux version for mobile phones.
In some ways this proliferation of Linux operating systems has been good for the industry – it’s given life to the likes of Android – but the severe “fragmentation” is also widely seen as a problem by hardware manufacturers as well as consumers.
For consumers it means that most of the phones they are considering buying, although all based on Linux, can be radically different to one another in day-to-day use. Each might have its own preferred method for managing data, sending texts and making calls, which makes for an inconsistent experience across brands and models.
The problem is even more severe for mobile phone manufacturers. Each needs to customise and manage their own Linux OS for their products – if they need additional functionality not already included in Linux, they need to create the software themselves.
That was until the launch of Linaro, a multi-company movement to create a consistent foundation for all Linux-based phones. Announced in March and launched in June, the non-profit organisation includes the likes of ARM, Freescale, IBM, Samsung and SonyEricsson as members and the idea is to collaborate to create a mobile Linux platform that can be used by all to create new Linux-based mobile devices.
Linaro is important because it is not simply a software project but also a hardware one. With major players such as ARM on-board Linaro is also looking at creating hardware platforms optimised for a Linux operating system. ARM is a key player in the mobile computing space, to date being most active in the mobile phone sector but rapidly moving into the larger-form factor tablet and netbook market.
Linaro is an ambitious project but it is showing signs of good progress. Although only announced six months ago the project released its first product earlier this month.
The Linaro project already has more than 70 developers working on it, a significant portion of the 100 developers expected to be working on the project in the near future. These developers are working on a number of key areas including development tools for Linux on mobile devices, and boosting the software on a chip (SoC) Linux kernel that will be used in future devices.
The specific focus to date has been on the ARM platform, in particular the Cortex-A9 and the Coretex-A8 chips, high-performance, low-power chips ideal in the mobile computing space. Unlike the traditional proprietary development environment, all developments on these platforms are documented on the Linaro Wiki.
As Linaro has been rapidly scaling-up its base of developers it has also been focusing its work, specifically on multimedia, graphics and power consumption. Dedicated working groups have been set up to focus on these and other key issues in creating a viable mobile Linux platform. Right now there are three groups, working on tools, toolchain, consolidating the Linux kernel and power management. The graphics and multimedia groups are about to launch.
Already the progress is becoming tangible. In a recent public demonstration, Samsung, together with other Linaro supporters, showed off multiple versions of Linux running on the various ARM platforms, all built with Linaro’s tools. Although it is still early days for Linaro the promise of providing hardware makers with a set of common tools that will make it easier for them to run Linux on their phones holds much promise.
Android, also Linux-based, has already proved that users are happy to buy Linux-based mobile phones in their millions, and speeding up the time to market for new Linux phones will have a significant effect on the mobile phone market.
Linaro still has some way to go, but as an engineering organisation dedicated to “getting things done” the future of Linux on mobile and ARM chips looks rosy.
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