Linux as a mobile OS, much more than just Android
These days it seems like Android is on the lips of every tech geek out there, and it is arguably one of the most successful Linux-based products ever. But Android is not the only Linux-based mobile OS in town. Far from it.
In fact, Linux is such a common base for mobile operating systems that you may very well have used feature phones or smartphones running Linux without ever realizing it.
Here below we will present 10 Linux-based mobile OSs other than Android, and these aren’t even all that exist.
(Note that with “mobile OS,” this article refers to an OS that runs on some type of mobile phone.)
LiMo is a Linux-based platform for handheld devices, developed by the LiMo Foundation. The LiMo Foundation consists of a number of prominent mobile makers and network operators such as NTT Docomo, Panasonic, Samsung and NEC, and is used in several different smartphones from these companies. More than 50 LiMo handset models have been released in various parts of the world so far.
Announced late in 2009, Bada is a Linux-based mobile OS from Samsung. Bada doesn’t necessarily have to use the Linux kernel, using a configurable architecture that can also run on a proprietary real-time OS kernel. The first phone using Bada was the Samsung Wave S8500, released in June 2010. (On a side note, “bada” is derived from the Korean word for ocean or sea, which we Swedes find funny because here “bada” means “take a bath.” Fitting.)
The follow-up to Palm OS, the Linux-based webOS was part of Palm’s reboot of its ailing smartphone business. The first phone using webOS was the Palm Pre, released in June 2009. HP bought Palm for $1.2 billion in July 2010 (the deal was announced in April), and has stated that it will be using the webOS platform for multiple products, including smartphones, tablets and even printers. Considering HP is one of the largest tech companies in the world, this bodes well for webOS.
Maemo is a mobile OS developed by Nokia, based on Debian Linux. It was originally designed for Nokia’s small mobile tablet computers like the N800 and N810, but Maemo version 5 is used in the Nokia N900 smartphone, the first Maemo device with phone functionality. The N900 was released in November 2009. The very first version of Maemo was released all the way back in November 2005 on the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet (yes, more than four years before Apple had even announced the iPad). Earlier this year, Nokia merged Maemo 6 with another platform to create MeeGo (see below).
MeeGo is a joint effort between Nokia and Intel, merging Nokia’s Maemo with Intel’s Moblin (Moblin is a Linux-based OS designed for netbooks) into one single project. The “merger” was announced in February 2010, so it’s relatively new. MeeGo is meant to be able to run on a large variety of hardware platforms, including smartphones, tablets, netbooks and inside vehicles and televisions.
And there’s more…
The ones we’ve listed so far are just the tip of the iceberg, although a tip with some pretty heavy hitters behind it. There’s an abundance of Linux-based mobile platforms and projects out there. Here are a few more.
- The Access Linux Platform was once supposed to be the next-generation Palm OS, developed by the Japanese company Access using components drawn from the GNOME project. Access had taken over development of Palm OS after buying PalmSource, which had been spun off from Palm specifically to develop its OS. The Access Linux Platform was announced in February 2006 and the first version arrived a year later, but has not yet been used in any phones as far as we could see (though we may be wrong there).
- SHR is a community-driven Linux distribution specifically developed for smartphones. It’s one of several continuations of the now-defunct Openmoko Linux project. SHR stands for the very poetic Stable Hybrid Release, and has not yet been officially released. It is mainly meant to run on Openmoko hardware like the Neo FreeRunner smartphone, but can also run on other smartphones and devices.
- Qt Extended Improved is one of several forks of the discontinued Qt Extended (Qtopia) from Trolltech. It’s a Linux-based OS designed to be embedded in mobile handsets, PDAs and projectors.
- GPE, the GNOME Palmtop Environment (or GNU Palmtop Environment, opinions apparently differ), a Linux-based platform for handheld computers and PDAs, with a special edition for smartphones, the GPE Phone Edition.
- Mobilinux from MontaVista Software is another Linux distribution targeted at smartphones, announced all the way back in 2005. It’s still in use, primarily targeted at older hardware platforms.
If you start looking around, you’ll notice that there are even more Linux-based mobile OS projects than the ones we’ve mentioned so far. It’s quite a hotbed with both corporate and hobbyist projects.
A few interesting observations
When you go through a large number of operating systems like we did in this article, you can’t help but make a few observations. Here are some of the more interesting things we noticed.
- Almost all of the platforms run on the ARM architecture.
- Linux-based does not necessarily mean open source. Both webOS and Bada are closed source platforms.
- WebKit dominates. Every single Linux-based mobile platform we examined came with a WebKit-based web browser. Considering that WebKit is used for the browser in Android, iPhone and the latest version of the Blackberry OS, it’s almost becoming a de facto standard for mobile web browsing (at least the rendering part).
Mobile, another stronghold for Linux?
Although Linux has had little success as a mainstream desktop OS, it’s become a dominant server OS, especially on the Internet. With Android and these other mobile OSs gaining traction, it looks like Linux could soon be as common in mobile phones as it is in servers.