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Linux on Mobile Phones - A Comparison of Various Linux Operating Systems

written by: Pranav Thadeshwar•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 5/18/2011

Linux has been eating user-share in all markets, and nowhere more so than on mobile devices like laptops, netbooks, and mobile phones. Find out why Linux is suited perfectly to these tiny devices and get to know more about the different players in the Linux mobile phone arena today.

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    Introduction

    One of the main reasons for the kind of exposure that Linux is getting is because of the vast amount of hardware it runs on. The Linux kernel has been ported to everything imaginable, from the tiniest computers to the largest space-ships and everything in between. The reason for this variety is due to the modular nature of the kernel, which suits everything it's tried on. These days, the talk of the town is netbooks. These tiny devices have taken the computing scene by storm and every manufacturer is running around trying to sell one of their own. And owing to the minuscule sizes and light workloads, the limited hardware on these netbooks requires something like Linux to fully appreciate the ability of the hardware without abusing it.

    But long before netbooks came mobile phones. At one time, they were nothing more than a mobile telephone. But with increasing hardware/computing capacity in tiny sizes, more and more features came to be added into these devices. It's not uncommon for a phone today to have more processing power than a computer from 10 years ago. But while the processing speeds and capabilities have increased by huge margins, you still need a light operating system to make use of everything efficiently, owing to the limited battery life and variety in hardware specifications. And that's where Linux comes in.

    Just like on the desktop, the distribution of Linux has been pretty fragmented in the mobile phone scene. You have consortiums, groups, operating systems and foundations by various groups, all of them going their own way towards an operating system or toolset for phones. Here are a few groups which are genuinely working towards getting Linux onto cell phones.

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    Google's Android

    Originally a company that made software for mobile phones, Android was bought by Google in July 2005. As soon as the news reached everyone, rumors spread that Google was planning on entering the mobile market, but their intentions and plans were unknown. Finally, in September 2007, those rumors were confirmed when it was discovered that Google had applied for various patents related to mobile phones.

    A beast the size of Google was always going to attract a lot of eyeballs. And now that it had decided to enter the mobile-phone market, lots of other companies wanted a piece of the pie, too. The result of this was the Open Handset Alliance, founded in November 2007. The alliance is made up of the following companies: Google, HTC, Intel, Motorola, Qualcomm, T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel, NVIDIA, Sony Ericsson, Vodafone, ARM, Asus, Toshiba, Garmin, and a few more.

    The Android operating system was revealed to be an open-source distribution of Linux, which would be available on a variety of devices from various manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, Lenovo, Sony Ericsson, Acer and many more. Owing to the modularity of the kernel and its open-source nature, Android is expected to be ported to hundreds of devices with varied feature sets. For more info, check out the entry for Android on Wikipedia.

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    LiMo Foundation

    Founded in January 2007, the LiMo foundation is a group of the following companies: Motorola, NEC, NTT, DoCoMo, Panasonic Mobile, Samsung, Vodafone, Mozilla, and others. The main aim of the foundation was to provide various benefits to the mobile industry like lower development costs, increased flexibility, and a richer ecosystem of mobile phones and devices. Since then, a number of devices from various manufactures have already been introduced in the market. The operating system is based on the GTK stack.

    Some of the phones available in the market running LiMo foundation's operating system include the Motorola Z6, RAZR2 V8 and Rokr E8. Apart from them, various other mobile phones from other manufacturers like NEC, Panasonic, and Samsung have been introduced.

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    Mobilinux

    Announced in April 2005, MontaVista Software created Mobilinux. Although the least known manufacturer in this list, Mobilinux finds itself on more than 35 million phones and other mobile devices, way more than any other mobile distribution. Mobilinux is designed for optimized power usage and is based on the 2.6 Linux kernel. One of its main features is its reported boot-time of less than 1 second and support for the ALSA sound driver. Development is done in its own environment called DevRocket which is based on the Eclipse IDE.

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    Openmoko

    Openmoko is probably the most famous Linux operating system for mobile phones alongside Android. Announced in 2006 by FIC, the main aim of the group was to create a family of open-source mobile phones, with the complete ability to modify the operating system and software stack as desired by the user. Openmoko Linux is based on the Ångström distribution and uses the Linux kernel, glibc and X.Org, along with their own GUI built using various open-source toolkits. The package system called Opkg is used to create and maintain software packages. As a result of the openness offered by Openmoko, various Linux desktop applications can easily be ported to this platform.

    The first phones running the Openmoko operating-system started coming out in July 2007. Since then, various devices have been released and more are announced to be released in the near future. Along with varied hardware, new Openmoko devices are in the process of, or have already started supporting features like GPS, cameras, EDGE connectivity, Wi-Fi, accelerometers, 3D acceleration and 3G.