Mobile Linux foundation LiMo‘s presence at the Mobile World Congress was impressive. DoCoMo demonstrated a series of handsets built on the OS; and LG & Samsung showed a series of reference implementations. But more impressive than the actual and reference handsets were the toolkits launched by
Access & Azingo.
We believe that LiMo has an important role to play in the Mobile Ecosystem and the platform is so compelling that over time more and more handsets based upon the OS will find their way into consumers hands. So why is LiMo different and important?
In a nutshell, it is not owned by anyone and is not being driven forward by any one member. Symbian and Android may also be open-source, but no-one has any serious doubt who is paying for the majority of the resources and therefore whether consciously or sub-consciously whose business model they could favour. The LiMo founder members were split evenly between operators (DoCoMo, Vodafone and Orange) and Consumer Electronic Companies (NEC, Panasonic & Samsung). Since then several other operators, handset makers, chip makers and software vendors have joined. The current board contains a representative sample of organisations across the mobile value chain.
LiMo as the Unifying Entity
The current handset OS market reminds us very much of the days when the computing industry shifted from proprietary operating systems to various mutations of Unix. Over time, more and more companies moved away from proprietary extensions and moved them into full open source. Unix was broken down into a core kernel, various drivers, thousands of bytes of middleware and a smattering of User Interfaces. Value shifted to the applications and services. Today, as open source has matured each company can decide which bits of Unix they want to push resources onto to develop further and which bits they want to include in their own distribution.
Figure 2: LiMo Architecture
The reason that Unix developed this way is pure economics – it is just too expensive for many companies to build and maintain their own flavours of operating systems. In fact there is only currently two mainstream companies who can afford to build their own – Microsoft and Apple – and the house of Apple is built upon Unix foundations anyway. Today, we are seeing the same dynamics in the mobile space and it is only a question of time, before more and more companies shift resources away from internal projects and onto open-source ones. LiMo is the perfect home for coordinating this open-source effort – especially if the Limo foundation allows freedom for the suppliers of code to develop their own roadmap according to areas of perceived value and weakness.
LiMo should be really promiscuous to succeed
In June 2008, LiMo merged with the LiPS foundation – great news. It is pointless and wasteful to have two foundations doing more or less the same thing, one from a silicon viewpoint and the other from an operator viewpoint. Just before Barcelona, LiMo endorsed the OMTP BONDI specification and announced that it expects future LiMo handsets using a web runtime to support the BONDI specification. Again, great news. It is pointless to redo specification work, perhaps with a slightly different angle. These type of actions are critical to the success of LiMo – embracing the work done by others and implementing it in an open-source, available to all manner.
Compelling base for Application Innovation
The real problem with developing mobile applications today is the porting cost to support the wide array of operating systems. LiMo offers the opportunity to radically reduce this cost. This is going to become critical for the next generation of devices which become wirelessly connected, whether machine-2-machine, general consumer devices or niche applications serving vertical industries. For the general consumer market, the key is to get handsets to the consumers. DoCoMo has done a great job of driving LiMo-based handsets into the Japanese market. 2009 needs to be the year that some European (eg Vodafone) or US (eg Verizon) deploy handsets in other markets.
Also, it is vital that the operators also make available some of its internal capabilties for use directly by the LiMo handsets and allow coupling to externally developed applications. These assets are not just the standard network services, but also internal service delivery platform capabilities. This adds benefits to the cost advantage that LiMo will ultimately have over the other handset operating systems. As in the computing world before, over time value will move away from hardware and operating systems towards applications and services. It is no accident that both Nokia and Google are moving into mobile services as a future growth area. The operators need an independent operating system to hold back their advance onto traditional operator turf.
We feel that as complexity increases in the mobile world, the economics of LiMo will become more favourable. It is only a matter of time, but LiMo market share will start to increase – the only question is the timeframe. Crucially, LiMo is well placed to get the buy-in of the most important stakeholders – operators. Operators are to mobile devices as content creators were to VHS; how well would the iPhone have done without AT&T?
- following the same path as the evolution of the computing industry
- broad and growing industry support
- not yet reached critical mass
- economic incentives for application developers are still vague
- commodisation of hardware and operating system layer – value moving towards applications and services
- a way for operators to counter the growing strength of Apple, Nokia & Google.
- how can operators add their assets to make the operating system more compelling?
- how can the barriers of intellectual property ownership be overcome?