Linux, Symbian, Android, Apple or Blackberry? A tough choice for CIOs

The recent launch of nine high-specification mobile phones that use the Mobile Linux operating system (Limo) will add fuel to an already overheated market.

The recent launch of nine high-specification mobile phones that use the Mobile Linux operating system (Limo) will add fuel to an already overheated market.

The market for mobile phone applications is already chaotic after Microsoft announced it will port its Office applications to Nokia's Symbian platform.

CIOs face a hard choice: do they let their users pick their own smartphones and trust that they will support the applications that are critical to the business, or do they give them a locked down handset for work use only?

And what about netbooks, which offer better keyboards and screens and free Skype phone calls? And on top of that, why not just put it all in the cloud with hosted services and largely dumb access devices?

Developing market

These are not trivial issues; not from technology nor human nor financial points of view. It would be simpler if the mobility space were more mature. The trouble started two years ago, when Apple and Google set out to win the hearts and minds of mobile software developers. Who has the most apps wins, goes the theory.

But applications need an operating system, and the market for mobile operating systems is getting chaotic. Microsoft's support for Symbian is a huge vote of confidence for the operating system, which is gaining ground as an open source platform.

But the Financial Times in Germany reported that Nokia was hedging its bet on Symbian by expanding its involvement with the Linux-based Maemo, potentially running it on mobile phones, netbooks and the N800 tablet.

Also bidding for open system kudos is Google's Android, another Linux-based mobile operating system. But such is Google's gravitational pull that all handset makers, except Nokia, have said they will bring out Android phones, and some systems developers are thinking of using it elsewhere, ranging from smart meters to laptops and more.

Linux for business

Nokia may be the market leader with more than 50% of the smartphone market, according to Gartner, and Google's size makes it a formidable competitor, but Apple, despite selling only five million handsets a quarter compared with Nokia's 100 million, has proved extraordinarily good at winning the hearts and minds of consumers.

This is a problem for CIOs. Software developers have largely written consumer-oriented, not business-oriented applications for the iPhone, despite its support for Microsoft Exchange ActivSynch and iWorks (which means it can read Office documents, PDF and Jpeg files), support for Cisco IPSec virtual private networks, and WPA2 Enterprise encryption with 802.1x for authentication.

For the short term, this leaves CIOs to choose between Research in Motion's proprietary Blackberry and Nokia's open source Symbian handsets for corporate phones. But Limo is backed by Softbank, Vodafone, Orange, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, Telefonica and Verizon Wireless and others. This could be the dark horse to watch, along with Android.

If nothing else, Linux could soon be the operating system of choice for mobiles, and that will have implications for integrating it with the enterprise.

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