Google Android Boosts Enterprise Mobile Linux

Google's introduction of its Android device operating system and Open Handset Alliance on Monday could help create just the breed of mobile Linux platform that many enterprise IT managers have been waiting for, industry experts contend.

While IT project leaders hoping to incorporate or build Linux-based applications on handheld devices have long been frustrated by a wild variety of disparate operating systems and fragmented standards efforts, the industry clout brought to the table by Google and its array of partners could spur wider adoption of existing tools along with a new wave of development, according to industry analysts and other market watchers.

With such partners as T-Mobile, HTC, Qualcomm, and Motorola aligned behind its efforts, Google's step into mobile Linux software could provide a more stable, viable option than existing mobile Linux efforts, said observers.

Even though much of the initial focus on the Google Android announcement thus far has been aimed at new consumer applications that may be created based on the OS and the company's partnerships, enterprises that have been hoping to move Linux onto the wireless handset are likely thrilled to see the introduction, experts said.

"We're heard a lot from IT managers about some enterprise-class solutions in areas like e-mail that haven't seen the light of day because there has been no real platform on which to deploy them," said Avi Greengart, analyst with Current Analysis. "Right now, all we have is a press release and a coalition making promises, but the fact that Google is behind this could give it a better chance top succeed than any other efforts we've seen in this space."

The emergence of a more "robust" Linux-based OS at the hands of Google and its partners should trump existing efforts to push the open-source platform into more devices, the analyst said.

None of the other handheld Linux standards groups -- including LiMo Foundation, backed by industry giants Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vodafone -- had been able to foster development comparable to Microsoft's Windows Mobile OS or RIM's BlackBerry platform in the enterprise, said Greengart.

By launching its own OS and creating a new standards alliance that won't compete with any of the existing groups, Google may have tilted the mobile Linux landscape for good, he said.

"If your developers are already familiar with the Linux kernel, this is something new and interesting to consider both for third-party and internally-developed applications, said Greengart.

"Eventually, you could see a capability for organizations to customize devices as they see fit to an extent that's not possible today, which could include the creation of custom applications or the use of tools that previously haven't had a place in the enterprise," he said. "They may also fundamentally alter devices before giving them out to employees and change the default applications completely to match the way their companies work."

Companies are excited about the platform but worry about security

Some companies involved directly in the mobile device applications market -- and previous industry efforts backing mobile Linux that Greengart criticized -- agreed that the Google announcement represents a significant opportunity for progress of the open-source platform.

John Bruggeman, chief marketing officer at WindRiver, a maker of so-called device software optimization tools and a member of the LiMo Foundation, said that the entire market should benefit from Google's efforts.

"There are tons of applications developers who want to write applications to a Linux platform and have them live on multiple devices, and this appears to create that opportunity," Bruggemen said.

The greatest barrier to mobile Linux adoption -- and the reason why groups such as LiMo were established -- was the vast number of different flavors of the OS software that have been incorporated in handheld devices thus far with WindRiver counting more than 1,000 different variants, he said.

If LiMo and other industry consortiums, such as Consumer Electronics Linux Forum (CELF), Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum, and OpenMoko, can work in partnership with the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), the expert maintains that benefits for the mobile device and applications development markets could be significant.

"This creates a chance for applications developers, especially those in the enterprise, to have a stable, reliable mobile platform based in the technical foundations of Linux with which they re already comfortable," said Bruggeman. "Fragmentation has always been the biggest barrier to adoption; it's a great day for Linux and for all these different efforts to consolidate around a common mobile platform."

The executive denied the claim made by Greengart and other analysts that the LiMo consortium had "fallen flat" in its efforts, pointing out that the group is less than a year old.

LiMo was important in that it was the first mobile Linux consortium that involved carriers in the standards process, which he cited as one of the most promising traits of Google's OHA effort moving forward.

Other Linux software providers echoed Bruggemen's comments, calling the Google announcement one of the keys to making the open-source development language a bigger player on the mobile landscape.

One of the biggest criticisms that rival mobile OS providers, such as Microsoft and Symbian, could aim at Linux was the fact that applications developers couldn't afford to deal with the huge variety of flavors of the open-source platform that have found their way into devices.

"Phone makers looked at Linux and could see that it was easier and more profitable to go with Windows mobile or Symbian, but now, you can put Linux in the same ballpark in terms of the completeness of the solution," said Jim Ready, CTO at MonteVista, a maker of Linux development platforms.

"It's still hard to do this development with the level of high-quality and performance that enterprise businesses expect. This won't make it easy for small developers to get in the game, but it will help," Ready said. "But at least now Linux can stand toe-to-toe with these other platforms in terms of breadth of environment."

In the face of all the optimism being espoused by other market watches, at least one analyst said that an oft-cited perception about Linux -- it's potentially weak security when compared to other platforms -- may still provide a sticking point for enterprises.

"Enterprise won't be the primary market for a lot of these efforts, and the security of a Linux-based handheld might be one of the reasons for that," said Maribel Lopez, analyst with Forrester Research. "Microsoft is already getting grief over whether its smartphones are secure enough for the enterprise, and I have to believe that any other OS will face the same questions. Hardcore enterprises will probably be the most skeptical about the initial security considerations."

This story, "Google Android Boosts Enterprise Mobile Linux" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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