Most people don't think twice about the operating system that's going to power their new PC -- their minds have already been wired for Windows, Mac OS X or Linux. Similarly, most people don't think twice about which operating system will power their new smart phone or other mobile device.
But that can be a big mistake because the underlying software has major impact on how you use your mobile device. For example, a look at the Linux-powered Nokia N800 Internet tablet shows just how an operating system can have strong advantages and shortcomings.
This Internet tablet runs customized Linux software, Maemo, which has been developed from the Debian and Gnome technologies. Out of the box, the unit can browse the Internet, read RSS feeds, send and receive e-mail, play music and videos, and make Internet phone calls using Google Talk. It also can transmit live video during phone calls via a built-in camera. Internet connection can be established via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or by using a broadband-capable cell phone as a modem.
However, while the N800 might initially seem to be feature-rich, you can't take photos or capture videos with the built-in camera because imaging software isn't included with the device. The same applies to personal information management -- calendar, notes and document-viewing applications are missing from the product. Such omissions may seem like quite a drawback for a product like the N800.
Because the device is based on open-source software, you can find and install those capabilities for free. Yet, this type of flexibility isn't for everybody -- many people will find it easier and more satisfying to buy devices based on other, less-open platforms such as the Symbian OS and Windows Mobile.
Let's look at how the Linux platform as deployed on the N800 compares in functionality with the Symbian OS and Windows Mobile.
Customizing the N800
For the N800 users, the place to start shoring up the device is the maemo.org Web site. The site hosts downloadable applications that open-source developers have made available for free.
For instance, readily available are a digital camera/video capture application, a multimedia player, calendar, spreadsheet, office document viewers, instant messaging, games and many other applications. It takes a single click (and a few security confirmations) to download and install a new application to the N800.
Smart phones built on Linux are available from many vendors, including Motorola, NEC, Panasonic and Samsung. Practically all current products are targeted at Asian markets, but the situation is changing. Apple has said that its iPhone will run on OS X, which is derived from Unix software. Palm is switching from Palm OS to Linux later this year.
The practice of building up a system configuration from freely available software components is nothing new for Linux desktop and server software users, who tend to be power users. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that an average Joe would pay for a product knowing that he would have to find, download and install an imaging application on the device before he could take photos with the camera.
While Maemo is used as the model of the open Linux culture, Windows Mobile and Symbian OS as major competitors of Linux have completely different origins and objectives. Both operating systems are licensed as traditional software products, both provide tools for programmers to create applications, and both are controlled by commercial enterprises.
Practically everyone who has used a desktop computer has used some Windows software. Yet, that knowledge doesn't necessarily translate to Windows Mobile, which is a separate piece of Microsoft software designed for smart phones and PDAs. Lately, devices like the Motorola Q and Samsung Blackjack have made the smart phone edition familiar to business people and consumers.
When you take a Windows Mobile smart phone or PDA out of the box and charge it, you are ready to roll. You can make phone calls right away. If you purchased the device from a carrier, messaging and Web access settings are already in place for sending e-mail and for browsing the Web.
Everything you need for managing your schedule, contacts, notes, to-do lists and messages is installed in the device. If you want to synchronize information with a desktop PC, you simply plug in a cable between the devices and use ActiveSync (on Windows XP) or Windows Mobile Device Center (on Windows Vista) to update the information.
Multimedia is another area in which integration between a Windows Mobile device and a PC works well. Streaming and downloading video or audio to a Windows Mobile device from the Internet doesn't require any additional software or settings. Windows Mobile can also play WMA and WMV formats, which are commonly used by media companies.
In contrast to Linux, Windows Mobile comes as ready-to-run software. You can enhance the software by downloading additional -- typically commercial -- software into the device, but you can't (or you don't have to) tweak the underlying operating system.