The Cell Phone Rings Thrice for Trolltech
More Phonemakers Adopt Linux, Qtopia; 3G Device On Way
Beyond the announcement of Motorola's A760 smartphone last month, Qtopia-maker Trolltech has inked deals with three more manufacturers for Linux-based phones.
Trolltech isn't naming all the names just yet, but all three of Trolltech's new partners are Asian-based consumer electronics firms, and one of the forthcoming phones is for 3G networks, said Trolltech CEO Haarvard Nord. Nord also confirmed that at least one Linux phone will be released in North America during 2004.
In an interview with LinuxPlanet, Nord revealed that he signed the three Linux phone pacts during a recent two-week road trip to Asia.
Officially unveiled on October 31, the Motorola phone is decked out with bells and whistles that include a digital camera, Bluetooth, a video player, and an MP3 player. At this point, however, the A760 is only shipping to Asia.
The A760 runs embedded Linux in conjunction with Qtopia Phone Edition, a new application environment that uses the same kernel and libraries as Trolltech's Qtopia environment for PC desktops. Only the user interfaces (UIs) are different, according to Nord.
Citing NDA agreements, Nord declined to specifically identify the three Asian phonemakers that have signed on to use Qtopia Phone Edition.
In an earlier interview with LinuxPlanet, David Kipping, Trolltech's director of business development, noted that FoxCon has already announced a Linux smartphone that will use Qtopia. Several Asian-based companies have already unveiled broader plans to produce Linux phones, including Samsung, NEC, and CECT. FoxCon's phone is due out during the first quarter of next year.
In Nord's opinion, the North American smartphone market is about to step beyond its traditional "monochome, text-based" limitations. Carriers, he contended, are now well on their way toward solving wireless bandwidth issues, through an ongoing series of network upgrades.
At this point, interoperability is the major remaining challenge, according to Nord. One big reason why North America lags in smartphone adoption is the fact that wireless networks sprang up on this continent earlier than in Asia or Europe.
"The wave of innovation in Asia is now starting to hit the US. Two-and-a-half years ago, you didn't really see anyone in this country using a cell phone as a camera. Today, this is happening more and more. Still, though, we need phone technology that's more plug-and-play. The other day, I used a camera phone to take a picture. However, when I tried to send it over one wireless network to someone on another wireless network, this turned out to be impossible," he illustrated.
"It's only recently that you've been able to 'SMS' between different carriers in the US. This has held up SMS adoption here." Yet carriers will move much more quickly to the MMS multimedia messaging standard, he predicted. "Soon, there will be MMS everywhere."
Nord affirmed that Trolltech will remain in the PDA market, even though the Norwegian-based company perceives much greater market potential on the smartphone side. Long before last month's Motorola announcement, Trolltech's development environment had already appeared in Sharp's Zaurus PDA. Royal is another PDA customer for Trolltech.
Cell phones are way ahead of PDAs in terms of sheer numbers, Nord pointed out. "Also, manufacturers see Microsoft has having a firm grip on the PDA market."
Until recently, the cell phone market has been characterized by "proprietary OS, with very little opportunity for third-party development," he acknowledged. Yet now, manufacturers are starting to view Linux as an important development platform. "With Linux, you can get right at the source code," he said. Developers can then use Qtopia to "change the whole user interface, and to add and remove apps."
Linux's KDE desktop environment has included Qtopia from its beginnings. Qtopia applications can run in other Linux desktop environments, too, including Gnome, he observed.
Trolltech is currently working on a contact manager application, said Nord, adding that Trolltech's "synchronization framework" architecture also supports direct synchronization with non-Linux desktops through Microsoft Outlook.
For further down the road, Nord eyes synchronization between Linux smartphones and multivendor servers via SyncML, the emerging synchronization standard that's getting a push from IBM.
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