Chinese startup opens up Linux phone market

After launching two of the world's first Linux smartphones, China's E28 is offering handset makers the opportunity to licence its...

After launching two of the world's first Linux smartphones, China's E28 is offering handset makers the opportunity to licence its software and hardware designs.

"With our technology, manufacturers can bring their own Linux-based smartphones to market within only a couple of months," said chairman and chief executive officer Roger Kung at the LinuxWorld conference in Frankfurt. "We view Linux as a very powerful contender to the smartphone operating system software developed by Microsoft and Symbian."

E28 specialises in the design and development of smartphones, reference designs and software. Smartphones are popular among business users seeking one device to combine the functions of a mobile phone and a personal digital assistant.

Last September, the Shanghai-based company raised eyebrows in the fledgling smartphone market with the launch of what it said was the world's first commercially available Linux smartphone. The Chinese startup beat Motorola to market.

E28's edge over Motorola in putting Linux phones in users' hands may owe something to Kung being president of Motorola's personal communications group in Asia before starting his own company in 2002.

The Chinese company has now decided to licence its Linux software and hardware reference design in the hope of creating a larger market for Linux smartphones.

That could prove a tall order.

"Like Microsoft with its Smartphone software, companies pushing Linux will have the same problem getting their operating system onto the handsets of major vendors," said Neil Mawston, senior analyst with Strategy Analytics. "Symbian already has a very strong position in this market, thanks in large part to Nokia."

Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, is also the largest stakeholder in Symbian, a consortium of several major manufacturers including Samsung, Siemens and Sony Ericsson.

Mawston predicted the global market share of Linux smartphones would be around 5% by 2009. "For the next few years at least, Linux will be a niche market - albeit a relatively large one - with the highest penetration expected in China and possibly Japan."

Earlier this year, Japan's NTT DoCoMo said it planned to provide funds to help six phone makers develop advanced handsets based on both Linux and Symbian systems.

E28's platform offerings are targeted at manufacturers of all sizes, with one "big brand" supplier poised to sign an agreement, according to Kung.

The E28 software platform includes telephony, messaging (SMS, MMS and e-mail), internet browsers, multimedia systems (MP4, 3GP, H.263 and more), multilingual handwriting recognition and data synchronisation with Windows PCs and Mac OS X systems. It is available now.

The hardware reference design, based on E28 products already on the market, provides detailed schematics, bill of materials and other design documentation. A detailed product offering will be announced early next year.

Later this year, E28 plans to launch a high-performance multimedia smartphone based on Linux and aimed at users in the US and Europe. This launch will be followed by a Linux smartphone for users who want a high level of security.

Kung said E28 had chosen Linux because it was a standards-based open system that could lead to a faster and higher rate of innovation, and because it could be customised for embedded systems.

"Because we control the code, we have more freedom to customise it and optimise software to meet a customer's specific needs. This is a huge advantage of open-source software over closed source."

Kung said Linux also had lower development costs and superior security.

E28 is a founding member of the Linux Mobile Alliance, an industry group that promotes embedded Linux as a major smartphone operating system.

John Blau writes for IDG News Service

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