All About Linux 2008: Your next cellphone will probably run Linux, and you won't even know it

Linux, as most people think of it, is an alternative desktop OS for nerds. And those people are right: the vast majority of machines running Linux are the personal computers of hobbyists and enthusiasts. That being said, you might be using Linux now and not even know it.

Stripped-down versions of Linux are well suited for modern cellphones. The OS already has all most of the needed code for connectivity of every kind built into it, and there are enough other open-source apps that can be adopted that it cuts production time — and costs — considerably.

Because of this many smartphone makers and application makers and carriers are turning their attention to Linux for handsets. And you might want to consider it too.

Linux now

Among them is Motorola, who currently uses Windows Mobile on its smartphones. Recently, though, Moto announced that it would start basing almost all of its phones on Linux, even the humble RAZR series. Are you using a RAZR 2? That’s Linux, baby. This is a testament to the things Linux can do on even modest hardware.

Samsung has had a handful of its phones running different versions of Linux and plans to roll out more this year. So far it’s released phones (mostly overseas) running Mandrake, RedHat, Gentoo, Debian, Ubuntu, and other flavors. It appears as if Sammy is trying them all on until it finds a good fit.

The future of Linux on handsets

But the real good news is the LiMo Foundation. Counting both Samsung and Motorola as founding members, the LiMo Foundation is a non-profit alliance that aims to create a common Linux-based platform for mobile phones, to insure greater interoperability of apps and communications between member devices.

In other words, it’s something of an official governing body for Linux on phones.

It’s important to note that not all phones will have a full-on install of Linux. In fact, most won’t. Linux’s modular construction means that aside from the kernal itself makers only need install components needed, keeping system overhead low and ensuring ease of use.

Other players

There are others working on putting Linux in your pocket, such as the Openmoko project that combines the open-source software of Linux with the open-source hardware philosophy to make custom, powerful phones.

But the real 800lb gorilla in the mobile Linux world is a name you’ve heard. Google’s Android platform promises to change the game in ways we can’t even anticipate right now.

Android was announced to great fanfare a few months ago and people are looking forward to it as the first real alternative to Windows Mobile in years. By combining Google’s own crack coders with the open-source community, Android is looking like its going to be a powerful force. And by leveraging Google’s own large network of services, the OS becomes almost secondary to the services it handles.

And that’s exactly what an operating system should be like, especially on a phone.

Amping it up

It’d be easy to say that Linux is a trend, but it’s not. Linux is slowly spreading, and when it eventually blankets the mobile world, it won’t be going anywhere. In Japan, there are already over 20 million handsets running Linux being used every day. You can likely expect numbers like that in America within the next year.

This is because people like Linux. Not that it’s popular as an application to the end user, but because there are many programmers already writing apps for the platform. These apps, most of them open-source, can be adapted to the mobile environment fairly easily, again cutting costs and resources spent.

This means a Samsung running the LiMo Platform will look entirely different than a Motorola running the same version. The underlying OS will be compatible.

This type of seamless interoperability is the future of mobile communications, and it’s a welcome one.

Using your Linux-based phone

When you get your first Linux-based phone, you probably won’t know it. Linux has a long way to go to become an appealing mass-market brand. Today it’s still associated with being something only serious nerds can get into, and in some ways it is. Because of this, you likely won’t see “Powered by Linux! Yah!” stickers on mobile phone boxes. But it’ll be in there, silently toiling away as you send catty text messages to your frienemies.

Some phones, though, will proudly boast their Linux cores, especially those meant for enterprise or small business. When these guys hear Linux, they think of security and all things non-Windows.

The large catalog of apps already available will grow as more mobile users adopt the platforms. Now there are few MMS management applications for Linux as there are few uses for it. It’s in the nature of Linux to improve with each implementation, and these improvements will be tangible on handsets, and ultimately might be Linux’s greatest strength in the market.

You will have a Linux phone in the near future, and you will love it, and that won’t make you a nerd.