The global battle to control the smarts in your smartphone escalated last week when some of the combatants redeployed their forces in two big moves.

First, Nokia announced it had agreed to purchase Symbian and open source some of the code in the widely used Symbian operating system for mobile phones. Nokia's partners in the original Symbian joint venture, including Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and now AT&T and Samsung, are launching a foundation to unite all of the current platforms based on the Symbian universe, including the S60, UIQ and MOAP(S) mobile platforms.

Second, the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum will cease operations, folding its work and its membership into the LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation. The intent, says LiPS General Manager Bill Weinberg, is to accelerate development of unified open source platform for mobile phones.

These two actions have highlighted the differences and similarities among the major contenders for software running on a billion mobile phones: Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, a growing mobile Linux movement, but also the upstart Google-led Android project and two wild cards: the Apple iPhone, and Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

LiMo's work is similar to that of the Android project, under the aegis of the Open Handset Alliance, unveiled last year. Android, too, is creating a Linux-based software stack for mobile devices. Many analysts said the Symbian open source effort was a direct shot across Android's bow.
"There is no question that this is a direct challenge to Android and its open-source roots," says Jack Gold, analyst with J. Gold Associates. "Given that a number of platform companies who are founders of the Symbian Foundation are also part of Google's Android program, it will be interesting to see if the commitment to Android remains as firm as when Android was first announced."

Mobile Linux consolidates

While consolidation is perhaps inevitable, there is plenty of room for more than one consolidated Linux project to make headway in the mobile phone market, experts said.

"I think [mobile] Linux is consolidating rapidly behind two major frameworks with similar solutions in terms of market presence," says Stuart Carlaw, vice president of mobile and wireless for ABI Research. "The vertical fragmentation has now gone, and you are left with LiMo and OHA [Open Handset Alliance] really running at the forefront of development." A few other Linux mobile solutions will find specific niches, he says, such as the Maemo platform, which powers Nokia's family of N800 Internet tablets, or the emerging class of mobile Internet devices, or MIDs.

LiMo released the first version of its code in March, followed just weeks later by the unveiling of almost 20 handsets, from LG Electronics, Motorola, NEC and others, and support from operators.

Recent reports say Android phones won't appear until late 2008. While the Symbian operating system currently is the dominant mobile platform, the open source code won't be available until 2009.
"Nokia clearly recognised that this was the only way for Symbian to continue to compete," says Linux Foundation COO Dan Kohn. "Symbian still has the challenge of building a large development community, enabling broader device support and keeping up with other major Linux efforts, such as Intel's Moblin, Google's Android and the LiMo Foundation, which are starting with fresh technology that has developer support across the entire pantheon of computing."

Challenges to Microsoft

The Symbian project and the mobile Linux consolidation present greater challenges for Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating systems. Microsoft executives last week repeated the mantra that mobile Linux remains fragmented, despite LiMo's coalescing support, and despite the fact that Symbian is not Linux-based.

"This ultimately impacts software developers, as they become an increasingly important part of this value chain," says Scott Rockfeld, the group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business. "In a fragmented industry, they have to create their application multiple times for the multiple flavors of the operating system that are out there. There are more Linux consortiums that come and go than there are Linux phones."

"LiMo will beat Windows in the midtier products and probably be more favored in the MID form factor," predicts ABI's Carlaw. Windows Mobile will continue its healthy presence in the high-end smartphone market.

But it won't be alone there. Despite the focus on Linux and open source, the most successful mobile platforms so far have been proprietary, says Mark Lowenstein: the original Symbian operating system, Windows Mobile, and most recently the spectacular success of Apple's iPhone and the growth of RIM's BlackBerry smartphone business.

RIM, for example, just announced another successful fiscal quarter, shipping about 5.4 million devices in that period, adding 2.3 million net new BlackBerry subscribers, bringing its total account base to over 16 million users, the vast majority of them reaped during the past 15 months.

Lowenstein is the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, a consulting firm. In his just released June newsletter, he argues that "proprietary is here to stay." Devices such as iPhone, BlackBerry, Sidekick and others show, he says, that "the tight integration of hardware, software, and applications delivers a superior user experience." These more closed, more limiting alliances between carriers and vendors like RIM or Apple or Microsoft, will face their first big test in 2009, when Android, LiMo and similar open projects have a chance to gain traction, according to Lowenstein.

"One thing is for sure," says ABI's Carlaw. "They are all likely to be part of a very interesting market long term."