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October 22, 2011 Executive Technology Strategies ETS 11-10-12


experts on demand

Android Is Just The Start Of The Connected Linux

Platform, Not Its Peak
Lead Analyst: Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Technology
In the week of the death of Dennis Ritchie, pioneer of Unix and therefore Linux, the question came to mind – would such giants of the cross-platform OS movement consider Android one of that movement’s finest achievements, or a distortion of all its goals?
On the plus side, the success of Android has established Linux as the indisputable foundation of mobile and cloud device software. Prior to Google’s intervention, mobile Linux systems were niche and often ineffective. Now, iOS and Windows will retain a strong position, but any new platform – even those from former proprietary giants like RIM – will have to run on top of the Linux kernel.
But if Google hoped that Android would become synonymous with mobile Linux, ending up the only real alternative to Apple and Microsoft, it has been hoisted by its own petard – its devotion to the cloud/browser model as the eventual mobile norm, a trend which will reduce the influence of individual OSs by reducing them to a browser and a simple kernel. The Android/iOS/Windows triumvirate will persist in conventional smartphones, but in all the emerging connected device categories – tablets, cloudbooks, ultrabooks, media players, set-top boxes and so on – Linux will be the default, but with all kinds of moves afoot to ensure that does not mean Android (or Chrome OS) or the domination of Google.
Google Will Never Be The Only Game In Town
For all its open source pronouncements, Google had just too many of the Microsoft genes to disguise its bid to control the mobile platform (unfortunately for its partners, Android too has quite a lot of Microsoft DNA, for which OEMs are now paying in royalties and lawsuits). The decision to acquire Motorola Mobility has created much sound and fury about Google seeking to run an integrated hardware/software platform, to the detriment of other partners – but in fact, it had already been rumbled long ago on the “fair and open” front. There was the own-branded Nexus range; the preferential treatment, in terms of R&D and marketing support as well as access to new technologies, for the inner circle, such as Motorola and HTC; and there was the blatant two-tier system which operated with Honeycomb, as Google battled with the dilemma of how to ensure quality control in a truly open environment. We believe that Motorola will not make this situation worse – either Google will find a way to sell on the hardware business, or it will bend over backwards not to lose other key partners, perhaps to the extent of Motorola’s current position as court favorite being diluted.
But regardless of that issue, Google will not have the next generation mobile software platform to itself. This is despite the fact that, well ahead of any rival except HP (which subsequently messed up on the execution), the search giant has recognized that it needs a new-style OS for the cloud, as well as a traditional “fat OS” geared most effectively to downloads and native processing. Chrome OS may win or lose, but it has brought the need for a “thin OS” - running almost everything in the HTML5 browser and online to the cloud – into sharp relief.
In doing so, though, it has invited a host of new players into the OS fold, some of which are already starting to chip away at Android, let alone Chrome OS. So, while nobody expects Android to lose its leadership in the smartphone world, it is besieged on several fronts in the broader world of connected devices – by other Linux-based OSs backed by large OEMs, such as bada and Tizen; by new browser-based OS projects like Baidu’s in China; and by web players who take Android itself but rob it of the Google experience (Amazon, Mozilla and KDE, among others, all looking towards their own Linux-based cloud platforms).
Other mobile Linux challengers
All this innovation, and consequent fragmentation, is enabled by the common Linux base. Its openness has always been its greatest strength, because of the creativity and flexibility that engenders. But it has also resulted in a huge number of distributions and user interfaces, which have found it hard to gain mass support when faced with the homogeneous Windows platform. And in the PC world, it is far easier to port different systems, provided they are based on the Linux kernel, than it is on mobile devices – yet there, the progress against Windows has been slow. The PC experience showed that another Microsoft was unhappily necessary to establish sufficient weight behind a Linux distribution on handsets, and Google was happy to fulfill that role. That decision established mobile Linux once and for all, and now other players are moving in to try to usurp Google’s place at the helm.
Some of these are conventional mobile heavyweights, notably Samsung. With Nokia out of the Linux fold, having abandoned MeeGo and embraced Symbian, the Korean vendor clearly sees itself as the natural leader. It continues to pursue its traditional policy of sup- porting any OS with any scale at all – Android will remain its flagship, plus WP7 – but it has two Linux-based platforms of its own, which will take a more prominent role than in the past. This is partly a hedge against problems with Android, whether IPR-related or connected to the Google/Motorola deal, but also a sign that Samsung may still be OS-tolerant, but it is no longer agnostic. Recognizing that software is the new area where control is won and lost, it wants a far more active influence over the way mobile systems develop.
So its homegrown bada platform is moving up the list of priorities, and is already more successful than WP7 in key markets including several European countries like the UK and France. Samsung is now working on a third version of bada OS, and considering launching it in the US for the first time.
Samsung’s multifaceted Linux play
Lee Ho Soo, head of Samsung’s mobile solutions center, said in an interview that bada “must continue to evolve. We’re doing a lot of things to provide more for users of bada-based phones.” When it originally appeared in 2009, bada was expected to play a very subsidiary role in its creator’s plans, mainly targeting featurephone upgrades and the highly customized environments of Asian carriers. But it is now matching Android in terms of functionality, and coming close, in certain markets, in terms of the resources Samsung places behind it, and behind the Wave handsets it supports.
The second release of bada, unveiled last February, added several features ahead of Android or iOS, such as NFC mobile payments. The same process is expected for bada 3.0, with Samsung pushing its capabilities to showcase and market-test new capabilities, and establishing it as an equal partner with Android. Among the technologies Lee said Samsung is developing is an advanced voice recognition capability – like Siri, the highlight of the iPhone 4S/iOS 5 launch. Of course, a US launch would be essential to put bada on equal terms with its stable mate, and that might be a harder sell with the heavily Android –focused US carriers – unlike European and some Asian counterparts, they are not looking for a replacement for Symbian in the midrange, one of the drivers for bada. But a US launch is being evaluated, according to Chris Martinez, senior manager of strategy at Samsung, in a recent interview. He said carrier support and a strong US developer base would be essential prerequisites.
Outside the US, the Wave line has shipped 5m units in the same time period that Samsung sold 6m Galaxy S models in international markets – showing that the two platforms are comparable in uptake, though bada’s popularity is more regionalized. Research firm Canalys recently reported that bada enjoyed 355% year-on-year shipment growth in the second quarter, while the app store now has over 13,000 programs. Hopes of a US release were raised recently by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam, who named bada – along with WP7 and BlackBerry – as a likely “third way” OS to live alongside Android and iOS.
Samsung also has another Linux platform, Tizen, which was recently formed from the merger of Intel’s MeeGo and the LiMO Foundation’s carrier-centric OS. The two giants will share the lead developer role and, while Samsung probably doesn’t need yet another smartphone system, it may well evolve Tizen to be a cross-platform cloud/browser platform for future connected devices, and for spanning its TV, mobile and PC ranges.
While MeeGo was originally formed from the convergence of Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo, LiMO featured a hefty chunk of code from Samsung’s internal SLP (Samsung Linux Platform) project. SLP is based around various mainstream open source projects including GTK (a user interface toolkit from the GNU, and the main alternative to Trolltech’s Qt, which was acquired by Nokia but also remains an open source system). Samsung also backs EFL (Enlightenment Foundation Libraries) and other technologies. In its own SLP diagram, it makes it clear that this is not a mobile-only project, but one designed to support its multi-screen activities, and we expect Tizen to be the same.
Tizen/SLP has a higher open source component count than bada, but all the mobile Linux-based platforms run up against the age-old dilemmas of open systems – how to differentiate when using a standardized technology? Thus the underlying common kernel can be- come so hidden under layers of incompatible and even proprietary user interfaces and add-ons, that the dream of a truly multiplatform Linux is killed again.

Forking Android
Android, of course, has strayed so far as to be deemed an official “fork” (off the main Linux tree), while Amazon has taken that a step further by using Android as the base of its new software platform, but rendered unrecognizable to most developers, not just to end users. The same is true of Mozilla’s project to create a browser/OS on top of a heavily customized Android, and similar developments at Baidu, China Mobile and others.
These go further than just layering a cosmetic UI on top of Android, as HTC does with Sense or Samsung with TouchWiz. These have some peculiarities for developers who wish to leverage all their user experience features, but can basically run any mainstream Android app unchanged. The same is not true of the new breed of what are almost Android forks.
The main distinguishing feature of these projects is that they take Android into the world of HTML5, streamed content and non-local processing more aggressively than Google itself has done, because it has Chrome OS optimized for that environment. Of course, as more smartphones start to behave as thin clients doing most of their activity in the cloud, the two worlds will start to collide, and Google already has the elements in place for this, notably with its plan to converge the Chrome browser with Android’s own browser. The browser is, of course, the key technology in creating the new wave of user experiences, and is being leveraged by Amazon, Mozilla and others to stake their claim in this world ahead of Google – even if they are using Google’s own Android as a short cut to achieve this.
Amazon’s innovative “split browser”, Silk - which carries out much of its processing in the cloud in order to reduce load on the device and network – is a good example of the trend. For now, it runs on Android, allowing the retailer to tap into that developer base and brand, but it may well be moved to a more modern, cut down Linux kernel in future (perhaps webOS, should Amazon indeed buy or license that from HP). The same goes for Mozilla, whose cloud OS project also harnesses a stripped-down Android in its first generation.
Browser as OS
The browser is the new OS, and the territory where the connected experience wars will be won and lost. Those who were happy to use any third party browser to deliver their wares, like Amazon, have realized the strategic importance of controlling their own, while the specialists are seeing a new opportunity to enhance their own role in the market. If a company has a sufficiently differentiated browser, linked to strong cloud services and content, the device OS becomes almost irrelevant and the power it brings neutralized.
That is why, initially, browser projects can afford to get close to Android at first, conscious that, if successful, they will degrade its importance. For Opera, for instance, Android is a major element of the growth plan, despite the competition from Google’s own browser. According to an exclusive interview with, Opera plans to converge its two mobile products, Opera Mobile and Opera Mini, in 2012. This will create a hybrid offering marrying Mobile’s traditional localized browser with Mini’s split approach – which, like Amazon’s new Silk browser, processes most of the web pages and JavaScript on a server and sends slimmed-down pages to the phone to conserve battery life and support smaller devices.
With the hybrid product, the Mobile browser will detect when the network is overstretched and switch into Mini mode. CEO Lars Boilesen told CNet: “We'd like to take Mini and put it into Mobile. We call it Opera with Turbo for Android...That is something we are looking forward to launch at the beginning of next year.” The particular aim is to convert current Opera Mini users – over 120m of them, mainly on low end handsets running Symbian, Java, Brew or a featurephone OS – to the new browser as they upgrade to Android midrange smartphones. They will be attracted by the superior efficiency if they have modest network connections or handsets. Although its motivations may be different from those of Amazon or Mozilla, Opera is recognizing the huge base of devices and users that can be addressed once there is no longer a need for significant memory, processing power and broadband speed on every gadget.
Plasma Active
It is not just the browser that is moving in to make the traditional OS invisible or redundant. Another interesting migration from the broader Linux world is the desktop, as seen in the KDE project’s attempt to dent Android (and iOS) using its new Plasma Active system. This is a version of KDE 4.x and Plasma Desktop, which form one of the most popular Linux user interfaces for PCs. KDE is not trying where RIM and Palm are failing, with a full operating system to challenge Android. Instead, it is harnessing its traditional strengths and following the trend to create innovative UIs, which carry most of the functionality, and run on stripped-down Linux OS engines. Plasma Active borrows many of the features of its grownup cousin, KDE 4.x, but has controls and APIs designed for touch-screens.
The project may not be attempting an Android me-too, but it does see the two leading mobile OSs as its target. Sebastian Kügler, one of Plasma Active’s leading developers, told ZDnet that Plasma Active was “certainly meant as a replacement for iOS and Android, a completely open, community driven project with strong backing by a group of businesses. We hope this appeals to many hardware vendors, and have in fact already started talking with some. The feedback so far was very good, and the concepts seem to appeal with potential partners. There is definitely demand for an open system without lock-in in the market for devices.”
The lesser known, but more truly open, mobile Linux distributions can find their niche in such projects. MeeGo, whose major base is in the in-car market, is also the underlying OS for Plasma Active, and Kügler said KDE was now investigating Tizen, though he said the new platform as yet had “too many unknowns ... before Intel and Samsung release an SDK, our hands are tied.” But the shift towards the cloud/browser experience and HTML5 will start to reduce the importance of individual “fat” OSs, so KDE may have its timing right.
The new technology runs on top of the Linux desktop stack, including the kernel, the Qt cross-platform framework and KDE’s Plasma Framework. There are other echoes of Nokia’s pre-WP7 cloud ambitions in the choice of MeeGo (along with Balsam) as the first underlying target Linux variants, though others can be substituted. The UI is designed using Plasma Quick, a mark-up language, which supports “organic” UI design based on Qt Quick.
And like Tizen itself and most of the cloud/browser projects, this is not about smartphones alone. The team statement says: “Plasma Active is innovative technology for an intelligent user experience (UX). It is intended for all types of tablets, smartphones and touch computing devices such as set-top boxes, smart TVs, home automation, in-vehicle infotainment.”
Its key goals, the project states, are to create a fast embedded UX platform which uses minimal memory and other resources, and which is highly flexible to support different form factors, some as yet unimagined. It also aims to be flexible in terms of the end users, adapting as consumers change their habits and activities.
The aim is to span the desktop and the mobile touch platforms by using common kernels, widgets and tools, but with optimized UIs (and mobile specific apps and widgets can also be built). In this respect, there are echoes of what Microsoft aims to do with Windows 8, though delivered using a fraction of the budget and resource. KDE will also span ARM and Intel environments, points out ZDnet. There are OS images for x86-based tablets, and package builds for ARM and x86, and the group is also working on flashable images for ARM platforms. The interface will also run on Oracle’s Virtual-Box virtual machine.
The first release of Plasma Active is targeted at tablets and at the new trend for the user experience to be heavily focused on cloud services, the browser and social media – with relatively little storage and processing at local level. Google spotted this trend very early with its Chrome developments, and can be given credit for giving the concept mainstream credibility – as it did for mobile Linux with Android.
Whether the search giant manages to derive as much control and profit from its far-sightedness as it hopes remains to be seen, and will depend how it responds to the wave of innovation going on around browsers, cloud UIs and new connected device formats. Google would not be the first giant to create the environment for a new trend and then see the jewels snatched by others – Intel, Microsoft, perhaps above all Sun with Java, have all suffered that fate, sometimes with Google doing the snatching. One thing is clear, the fragmentation of the Linux experience has not been halted by the success of Android.

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