Linux is just good for Nokia business

Nokia may be shifting to Linux for low-end smartphones. What gives?

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Last week's news that Nokia plans to roll out low-end Linux-based smartphones left a lot of people (including me) scratching their heads and wondering what was going on. Didn't Nokia just drop development on a mobile Linux platform called MeeGo?

Yes, they did. To the consternation of many in the Linux community, MeeGo did indeed seem to be the victim of a decision by Nokia in February 2011 to partner with Microsoft and make Nokia's flagship smartphone platform Windows Phone 7.

So why would Nokia appear to do a 180 and try a product release based on another form of Linux, codenamed "Meltemi"? Wasn't MeeGo good enough? And what about Symbian, which Nokia just completed outsourcing development and support to Accenture?

Like any detective, I started out making a list of possibilities.

First, there's the Microsoft conspiracy theory. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop's last job was President of Microsoft's Business Division, and many people believe that Windows Phone 7 products were pre-ordained the instant Elop stepped into Nokia's Finland headquarters. MeeGo was one of the targets at the top of Microsoft's hit list, the conspiracy theorists maintain.

Nokia has burned its MeeGo bridges, but has also realized the terrbile enormity of its Windows Phone 7 mistake, so it is readopting Linux, albeit in another form.

It's a nice conspiracy theory, which firmly paints Microsoft as the ultimate bad guy and Nokia as a bunch of bumbling idiots. But I don't believe a word of it. First, it discounts the clout that Nokia has as the world's largest cellphone maker… frankly, they're too big for even Microsoft to push around.

There was a long story on Elop's decision to shift to Windows Phone 7 in Businessweek this summer that explained why MeeGo wasn't going to be a good fit for Nokia.

"At its current pace, Nokia was on track to introduce only three MeeGo-driven models before 2014--far too slow to keep the company in the game. Elop tried to call [Chief Development Officer Kai] Oistämö, but his phone battery was dead. 'He must have been trying an Android phone that day,' says Elop. When they finally spoke late on Jan. 4, 'It was truly an oh-s--t moment--and really, really painful to realize where we were,' says Oistämö. Months later, Oistämö still struggles to hold back tears. 'MeeGo had been the collective hope of the company,' he says, 'and we'd come to the conclusion that the emperor had no clothes. It's not a nice thing.'"

MeeGo didn't fit for Nokia because it didn't fit within it's high-end smartphone plans... not because of any mechanizations on the part of Redmond.

The next theory I went through was costs. Was MeeGo somehow too expensive for Nokia to use? No, that's completely off the mark, too: despite press reports that MeeGo has a licensing fee, the Linux Foundation has categorically stated that MeeGo is free-of-cost to use. So it isn't money that's keeping MeeGo out of the picture.

Is there something about MeeGo and Symbian that doesn't work well for low-end smartphones? Ah, now there lies what could be the thread of what's going on.

It was hard to see at first, because Symbian had already been used for low-end smartphones. More than the absence of MeeGo, Symbian's absence from such a product really puzzled me. Nokia co-invented Symbian, so they know this platform forwards and backwards. Why not revive its use for this new product line?

The reason is this: Symbian is no longer a viable contender against Linux. Linux has huge mobile usage (see: Android) and industry support, not to mention ongoing development that Symbian simply does not have.

There's another reason why Linux is more attractive to Nokia than Symbian: size. Working with Symbian means investing in and working with an entire operating system in order to be unique. But, if you work with Linux, you can have a ready-to-go, highly active operating system, which only needs a few special-sauce tweaks to be unique.

Think on that a moment, because it also gives us a clue about why Nokia didn't go back to MeeGo for this project, either. Like Symbian, MeeGo represents a full-platform approach to a device operating system. Nokia has learned that such approaches are not what it needs to survive. It did that already, with the very same two operating systems, and almost got killed because of it.

What Nokia wants to do here is try what the other phone makers are doing: take a commodity, industry-supported operating system (like, say, Linux or one of the BSDs) and add just enough device hardware hooks and interface tweaks to differentiate the platform from those of your competitors. Samsung does this now with Bada, which is believed to based on one of the BSD-flavored and even Linux kernels, depending on the phone. HTC does this with Android, and they may get even more Google-independent if they end up working with or buying another OS.

It really is the more efficient way of doing things, because the phone vendor saves costs by using platforms that have wide adoption and wide support. That's the key, here. Symbian, outside of Nokia, does not have wide adoption and has little industry support. MeeGo has broader support, thanks to Intel and the Linux Foundation, but very small adoption numbers.

But Linux plainly does. And it doesn't have to be Android-flavored Linux, either. The Android kernel is free, but the rest of Android costs money, which cuts into Nokia's margin for this type of device. But Nokia knows how to take a vanilla Linux kernel and build a platform on top of that. Which is exactly what I think Meltemi is going to be.

Taking this approach may seem to repudiate the merits of Symbian and MeeGo, but what Nokia's really doing is avoiding a large-scale investment in a platform for a product line that may or may not sell. Low-end smartphones are a very fast-growing niche, particularly in the BRIC economic-bloc countries, but there's never a guarantee that any low-end smartphone will sell like hotcakes. So, instead of taking a gamble on a "big" OS investment, Nokia will stay nimble and use Linux to do most of the heavy lifting on the Meltemi platform. That way, if their devices don't sell for whatever reason, Nokia won't have wasted the OS-development funds.

It's a smart approach.

Interestingly, this approach may be why Tizen (the planned companion or successor to MeeGo, depending on who you ask) came into being. Unlike MeeGo, Tizen may not have to be a full platform solution. Tizen can also be used as more of an OS specification and reference implementation of a mobile platform that has the backing of Intel, the LiMo Foundation, and the Linux Foundation. In such a mode, Tizen could prove to be a much more compelling smartphone platform to hardware vendors than MeeGo, since such a project would be easy to customize and launch as a unique platform.

We'll have to see how Tizen shakes out, of course, and, for that matter, Meltemi. But Nokia's quick-on-its-feet plan for Linux development could be just what the company needs to stay competitive in the low-end smartphone market.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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