Motorola and PalmSource have signed up to efforts to put Linux on mobile phones.

The Mobile Linux Initiative has been launched by Open Source Development Labs (OSDL) to tackle technical challenges and support the adoption of Linux on handheld devices.

"There is a lot of momentum for Linux on handhelds, specifically for mobile phones," said Eirik Chambe-Eng, president and co-founder of Trolltech, a company that builds a graphical user interface on top of Linux for mobile devices which has joined the OSDL effort. But because an increasing number of companies are developing Linux for mobiles, there is a need to coordinate the efforts, he said.

"All of the Linux developments are a disparate set of projects," said Ben Wood, research vice president for mobile devices at Gartner. "It's not like write once, run anywhere." Companies involved in the Mobile Linux Initiative hope to pull together their developments in a common direction.

The group's technical achievements will also be important. Companies like Trolltech are dependant on a good Linux kernel that can efficiently use processor and electrical power in devices. "This initiative is aimed at creating one good kernel of OS that uses the resources of the mobile phone," said Chambe-Eng.

Linux-based devices have been popular in Asia but so far haven't taken off in Europe or the US. Motorola has shipped more than three million devices in China based on Linux and Trolltech's software, Chambe-Eng said. He expects that manufacturers will begin pushing Linux into Europe and the US in the next six to 12 months.

Linux is attractive to mobile manufacturers for its capabilities as well as cost. It may solve some of the problems that manufacturers face with building full-feature phones that may include cameras, color displays, video cameras and Web browsing. "The OSes that manufacturers are using are starting to run out of horsepower," Wood said.

Linux can also reduce costs for manufacturers. The Symbian OS ends up costing manufacturers between $5 and $7 per phone. A Linux-based phone would come in under that.

While there is a growing interest in Linux in the mobile phone space, it probably won't have major implications soon, Wood said. "This is just a stepping stone in the emergence of Linux as a potential platform for mobile phones," he said. "But it's still a very long way away."