Verizon Wireless has become the first US operator to join the LiMo Foundation, a group developing mobile Linux technology.

The LiMo Foundation, started by companies including Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, NEC and Samsung, is one of several initiatives working to unify mobile Linux development so that applications can run across phones with different Linux implementations. The LiMo Foundation has built a standard middleware layer that can run on different mobile Linux operating systems.

In addition to Verizon, the LiMo Foundation has announced that Mozilla, SK Telecom, Infineon Technologies, Red Bend Software, Sagem Mobiles, SFR and Kvaleberg are also joining the group. Verizon will hold a board seat.

Late last year, Mozilla said it was planning to get serious about developing a mobile browser. Joining LiMo could be "their ticket to get visibility," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst with Gartner.

Verizon, on the other hand, is looking to broaden the lineup of devices for its network, said Kyle Malady, Verizon's vice president of network technology development. He added that supporting LiMo will give the company more device-development "flexibility" and provide more choices for its customers.

Verizon expects it will take "many months of development" to get Linux on its handsets, so they won't be available in the market until next year, he said.

The company will start small with its Linux strategy, putting the OS on its most basic devices, and scale up, Malady said. "We're looking at the feature-phone category to start," he added. "We have a lot of work internally to do ... to make it work seamlessly for our customers."

However, once Verizon moves ahead with its Linux, it will become the "OS of choice" for its devices, although this does not preclude Verizon from supporting other mobile OSes - including those it already uses such as Windows Mobile, RIM, Palm and BREW - as well, Malady added.

LiMo has largely eclipsed the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum, an organisation that is setting mobile Linux standards. LiMo is not creating official standards, but offering its members technology that was developed and contributed by members.

But LiMo still must contend with Android, Google's mobile Linux operating system in development.

When asked why Verizon chose at this time to support LiMo over Android, Malady said that the diversity of the organisations that have joined LiMo and the fact that the group already has a commercial product available were factors in the company's decision.

However, he hinted that Verizon may also join Google's Open Handset Alliance (OHA), the companies working to develop Android, once that group has something to show for its work.

"If OHA handsets show up, we'll look at those as well," Malady said.

Despite growing interest in the idea of using Linux on mobile phones, growth in the actual market isn't happening. Worldwide shipments of Linux phones in 2007 were essentially the same as the previous year, according to research from Canalys.

Analysts blame fragmentation for the slow growth. But operators and manufacturers are interested in Linux because it can allow them to get phones on the market quickly and price them cheaply, Dulaney said. Linux phones will be mainly directed at consumers, where differentiation is important, he said.