Red Hat, 3G Lab team on open-source wireless OS

Bringing open source to wireless devices, Red Hat Inc. and 3G Lab Ltd. Tuesday said they will develop an operating platform for next-generation mobile phones and connected PDAs (personal digital assistants).

The platform, dubbed eCos/M3, will be based on Red Hat's eCos (embedded configurable operating system) product, the companies said in a statement. Red Hat is a U.S. Linux vendor, 3G Lab is a Cambridge, England-based developer of multimedia applications for mobile devices.

Targeted at handset makers and mobile phone operators, eCos/M3 faces competition from Microsoft Corp.'s Stinger platform and Symbian Ltd.'s Epoc. All these products are promoted as the key to enable users to run a variety of applications, including Internet access and multimedia, on mobile devices connected to next generation mobile networks.

While Microsoft has only been able to enlist small mobile handset makers, Symbian is co-owned by giants Nokia Corp., L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co. and Motorola Inc. Signing up these players to use eCos/M3 will be a tough exercise, admitted Paul Beskeen, director of engineering at Red Hat's embedded runtime group.

"It will take quite a change for them to move away from Symbian. This (eCos/M3) won't change the world overnight. The initial set of companies that take it on are likely to be second tier players," he said in an interview, adding that talks are being held and that the first contracts should be signed in three to four months.

As eCos/M3 is open-source, third parties will have access to the software's source code and are allowed to improve it. This, together with the relatively low royalty costs, provides some clear benefits compared with Stinger and Epoc, according to Beskeen.

"Microsoft's and Symbian's products are much more constrained," he said.

One analyst disagreed, saying that Symbian's offering in particular serves handset makers well.

"A Symbian license only costs US$5 per handset and it is a somewhat open platform. Manufacturers can change the top level of the software to fit different phone configurations and add on to it. Symbian offers a lot more freedom than Stinger, which is a closed bundle," said Tim Mui, a research analyst with International Data Corp. (IDC).

Red Hat and 3G Lab will have a tough time winning customers, according to Mui.

"The major handset makers have invested a lot of money and committed to Symbian. Nokia has said that within a couple of years about half of its 3G (third-generation) handsets will be based on Symbian," Mui said.

He noted that Symbian has been making mobile phone operating systems for nine years and understands the specifics of the phone-based environment.

"Microsoft, Palm and others are playing catch-up," he said.

The people expected to improve eCos/M3 are programmers in the mobile industry. They are encouraged, but not obligated, to share their improvements or applications, Beskeen said.

"We don't expect many contributions from the handset manufacturers, but do expect them to share general improvements. We don't put requirements on users to make their applications open source," he said.

Red Hat's eCos has ties to the Linux operating system, the mother of open source, but isn't based on it. The software requires hardly any storage space, can function on limited processing power and is thus ideally suited for battery powered devices. The system is embedded, which means users can't load it onto their handset or PDA, but that the manufacturer includes it.

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