Smartphones Now: Linux

If you thought Linux-based OSes were for back rooms, hardcore geeks, and computer science grad students, you’d be right. Recently, however, its made great strides toward becoming much more “user friendly,” even advancing to the point where they’re usable as phones. But what makes you want to pick a Linux smartphone?

There are a couple answers to that question: You’d want a smartphone running Linux instead of PalmOS, Symbian or Windows Mobile if you’re a big Linux fan. You’ve been using Linux for a while, and you’re dying to get the same building-block functionality in something a bit more portable. The second reason is if you’re a do-it-yourselfer that likes to tinker with new things. Linux for phones is a medium still in its infancy, but because of its “Open Source” nature, you’re free to write your own programs easily and quickly if you’re somewhat familiar with programming. Linux phones generally aren’t for the casual or business user yet, but within a few years they may get some substantial market share.

That’s all great, but what can you do with a Linux phone? Well, some of the more interesting functions on the Linux phones come from the fact that it runs Linux. Sure, you have all the normal smartphone functions like Office document editing, web browsing, emailing, instant messaging, and media playback. But you also have the advantage of many years, and nerds, standing behind you with their Linux experience. You’re free to go download and compile different packages to fit your phone.

Want to remotely control your PC from the road? Sure, grab VNC and make that happen. Want to make free phone calls? Get a SIP-based soft phone and you’re on the way to using 802.11b/g to talk to your wife. Want to do something? Write it yourself, or go on sourceforge and see if someone’s written it already. It’s that open.

This all sounds perfect for you, doesn’t it geek? There’s only one hang-up: the Linux smartphone is still in many ways a pipe dream. Sure, they exist, but not in nearly the numbers that other smartphones do. Our quick survey showed zero American providers currently offering smartphones running on Linux. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Indeed, the next version of the Palm OS is to be Linux based. Besides support for open-source Linux projects, it’s said to be backward compatible with popular and established Palm OS applications, a real boon for both platform. Also, there are rumors with meat to them that Motorola will be launching a Linux-based smartphone platform in the near future, and already has one handset with FCC certification.

If that’s still a little too uncertain for you, you can always brew your own. Enthusiasts have had moderate success in getting Linux to run on hardware designed for other smartphone OSes. For example, it’s been known for awhile that the Treo by Palm can run Linux quite nicely, and other hardware shouldn’t be too much harder to hack. Who knows, in the future we may purchase smartphones the way some people buy computer hardware, having no OS, with the plan to install their own.

One of the obstacles Linux faces in the smartphone market is intercompatibility with other smartphones. If mine has WiFi and I want to send you a contact, who’s to say your contact list will recognize my data? That’s where LIPS come in. LIPS is the Linux Phone Standards forum. Access (formerly Palm Source), makers of the Palm OS, are charter members of LIPS, and as the next rendition of its operating system is known to be Linux-based, it would give the growing standards forum the legs it will need to really take off and its standards used by other manufacturers.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t serious support today for Linux smartphones. Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung have all had successful handsets running Linux, indeed the new Samsung SCH-i819, a smartphone aimed at Chinese businessmen, runs a specialized version of Linux with support for its touchscreen, ideal for inputing Chinese characters. In addition, it features BREW for support for most mobile downloads.

If you’re a first-time smartphone buyer, and have never owned a PDA of any kind, then the learning curve for Linux devices isn’t much different than that of Windows Mobile or Palm OS or Symbian devices: You point at what you want, and tell it what to do, it should do it fine. Unfortunately, no US manufacturers are shipping Linux-based smartphones in America, though due to the nature of Linux, but that’s set to change. For high-end users, though, it’s an ideal platform for packing as much power into a very small device.

LIPS forum [website]