June 15, 2006 2:00 AM PDT

Mobile phone companies join forces on Linux

Four mobile handset makers are teaming up with two cellular operators to develop a new Linux software platform for mobile devices.

Cell phone makers Motorola, NEC, Panasonic Mobile Communications and Samsung Electronics, along with mobile operators NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone, expect to announce on Thursday plans to form an independent foundation to develop a common mobile Linux-based platform. They will use this platform to develop new products, applications and features.

Linux, an open-source operating system, is already available on a wide range of mobile handsets. Motorola alone says it has shipped more than 5 million Linux-based handsets, mostly on smart phones, such as the Ming model shipped in China. In addition, Motorola just launched the new Rokr E2 music phone in Asia, which also uses Linux. The Rokr E2 will soon ship in Europe.

Other handset makers have shipped a similar volume of Linux-based handsets, said Christy Wyatt, the vice president of ecosystem and market development for Motorola and a spokeswoman for the new Linux foundation.

But until now, each handset maker has built its own operating system using the Linux kernel. This has led to a wide variety of implementations in the market, each of which must be tested individually by mobile operators.

The six companies forming the foundation believe that by working together, they can build a common platform that will allow them to develop new products much faster and cheaper than they've done in the past. Mobile operators benefit from a common Linux platform, too, because it means they can test and certify one operating system instead of several.

"While Linux itself is an open kernel, platforms from handset maker to handset maker vary," Wyatt said. "And when you look at building an ecosystem of suppliers and developers, it is difficult to support individual Linux implementations. Pulling resources from multiple companies to develop a common platform makes Linux more compelling."

Details of how the foundation will be funded and how it will function haven't yet been released. But the goal of the founding companies is to develop and market an application programming interface, or API, specification; architecture; and specifications for third-party software developers.

The foundation also plans to provide a test suite to assess and demonstrate product conformance to the specification. Other companies will be encouraged to join the foundation, Wyatt said.

This isn't the first effort to come up with a common Linux operating system for mobile phones. The Linux Phone Standard Forum (composed of several companies, including PalmSource and France Telecom's Orange), the Open Source Development Lab and the Consumer Electronics Linux Forum all have been working on efforts to define requirements or establish specifications.

Wyatt said that unlike traditional standards efforts, the new foundation will establish a common software platform that all participating manufacturers will be able to use.

"We're developing a complete platform," she said. "So instead of everyone developing products based on a published specification or standard, we'll be innovating and developing a whole platform with our peers."

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