Smartphones: they’re all about Linux, baby

Almost every new touch-screen smartphone that is introduced into the market gets touted as an upcoming iPhone killer. But with Apple’s Q1 2009 results showing a resounding 88% growth year-on-year for the iPhone it appears that such a phone has yet to be launched.

But while iPhone competitors have had difficulty taking off there are some that have at least managed to make their presence felt.

Among those who have made a lot of hype and who have managed to gather a substantial following in the process two were treated to drum rolls more noticeably than the rest: HTC’s Dream (a.k.a. T-Mobile G1 in the States) and Palm’s Pre – and rightfully so.

HTC Dream a.k.a. G1

Palm Pre

The Dream is riding on the wave of Google’s entry into the phone industry giving it much exposure as well as financial advantage. Now although Palm has seen more glorious days it still has a juicy-enough story behind the product that has given it the right to be launched with as much fanfare. Jon Rubinstein the man highly responsible for the Palm Pre was actually also highly instrumental in engineering two of Apple’s ground-breaking products: the iPod and the original egg-shaped iMacs.

In Australia interested buyers can grab a Dream through Optus. Those who would like to try out Palm’s Pre however may have to wait a little longer as it will start out exclusively under Sprint and on a CDMA network. Hopefully plans (which are said to be underway) of coming up with a 3G UMTS/GSM version will push through soon.

Both the Dream and the Pre run on Linux-based operating systems with Dream on Android and Pre on Palm webOS. There is one noticeable difference between these two operating systems though. Android is free and open source software while Palm webOS is primarily closed. Android is being developed by the Open Handset Alliance a group comprised of 47 companies including Google NTT DoCoMo Sprint HTC ASUS LG Motorola Vodafone and many more. On the other hand development of webOS is currently done exclusively by Palm.

Last February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona another HTC touch-screen smartphone dubbed as Magic was introduced and is set to debut under Vodafone. It will still use Android as its operating system earning it the unofficial title of G2.

HTC Magic

Right now these Linux-powered phones are making a lot of noise. Now whether that noise will actually be heard by consumers and translated into purchases that will make dents on the iPhone’s daunting market still remains to be seen.

One thing’s certain though we’re bound to see more feature-packed and eye-candy smartphones running on Linux in the future.

Apart from anything else Linux is a very attractive option for smartphone makers because it’s free. By using Google Android for example smartphone makers can scale back their own proprietary OS development efforts while still customising Google’s OS with new skins and features to preserve competitive advantage over other handset makers. All without having to pay Microsoft a per-handset licence fee for Windows Mobile too.

With Palm’s WebOS operating system Palm has been able to focus more on front-end interface and hardware integration rather than having to write a new operating system to replace its old PalmOS from scratch.

Of course even the iPhone is built on an open-source operating system with some similarity to Linux — Apple’s OS X which is based on FreeBSD the Apple variant of which is called Darwin.

Use of open-source operating systems also has advantages for handset makers in terms of hardware compatibility. Where integrating new parts into phones may have required substantial effort in the past to get hardware working with proprietary software open-source operating systems provide the same hardware abstraction layer found in desktop operating systems. Put simply: mobile phone part makers can write drivers for Linux once and then simply assist handset makers in implementing the drivers into their Linux smartphone OS.

With rumors of Google Android heading for netbooks soon it may even be that Linux on the Smartphone will end up migrating to Smartphone Linux on the Netbook sooner rather than later!