The tragic history of mobile Linux

Although most people have never even heard of a Linux phone, many commercial mobile Linux operating systems have been developed over the last 2 decades:

  • G.Mate’s Linupy (based on ARM Linux) in 2000-05 (3 models: Yopy YP3000, YP3500 & YP3700),
  • Motorola’s EZX Linux (Qtopia+Java, based on MontaVista Consumer Electronics Linux) in 2003-08 (e.g. A760, A780, A720, MotoMING A1200 & MotoROKR E6),
  • NEC’s Linux (based on MontaVista) in 2004-05 (3 models: NEC N901iC & N900iL, Panasonic P901i),
  • Nokia’s Maemo in 2005-11 (4 models: Nokia 770, N800, N810 & N900),
  • ACCESS Linux Platform (ALP) in 2006-13 (14 Panasonic models and 15 NEC models in Japan),
  • Motorola’s MOTOMAGX (based on MontaVista Mobilinux) in 2007-09 (11 models),
  • Openmoko Linux (Om) in 2007-09 (2 models: Neo 1973 & Neo FreeRunner),
  • Intel’s Moblin in 2007-2010 (Acer Aspire One netbook; several smartphones such as the LG GW990 and an Inventec model were cancelled)
  • LiMo Foundation (standard base without specifying the graphical environment) in 2007-11 (26 Panasonic models, 23 NEC models, 7 Motorola models, 3 Samsung models)
  • ZiiLABS’ Plaszma in 2009 (only the Zii TRINITY)
  • Palm/HP/LG’s webOS since 2009 (7 models: Pre, Pixi, Pre Plus, Pixi Plus, Veer, Pre 3 & TouchPad)
  • Samsung’s Bada with BSD code and proprietary kernel, but option to use Linux kernel in 2010-13 (6 models: S8500, S8530, S5250, S8600, S5380 & S7250),
  • Samsung Linux Platform (SLP) in 2010-11 (several LiMo devices),
  • Nokia + Intel’s Meego in 2010-12 (only Nokia N9),
  • Nokia’s Meltemi (aka Clipper) in 2010-12 (canceled before any phones were released)
  • Samsung + Intel’s Tizen since 2011 (5 models: Samsung Z, Z1, Z2, Z3 & Z4)
  • Jolla’s Sailfish OS since 2013 (16 models),
  • Mozilla’s Firefox OS in 2011-2016 (15 models),
  • Canonical’s Ubuntu Touch in 2011-17 (5 models: BQ Aquaris E4.5, Aquaris E5 & Aquaris M10; Meizu MX4 & PRO 5),
  • KaiOS since 2017 (35 models)
  • Samsung’s Linux on DeX (only on desktop, based on Ubuntu) in 2018-19 (12 models)

This list is far from complete. For example, OpenHanded’s Poky Linux and Wind River’s Platform for Consumer Devices – Linux Edition (PCD-LE) were both failed attempted at commercial mobile Linux. Some of the coders who worked on these two distros eventually were employed in making Intel’s Moblin, and then Meego, and then finally Tizen. Roughly half of the 121 Linux mobile phones that were covered by LinuxDevices between 2000 and 2009 used an unnamed type of Linux. Many mobile device manufacturers either didn’t consider it important where they got their Linux from, or they wanted to hide that information from the public.

The mobile Linux distributions often have incestuous relationships, with all their forking and merging, as shown by the family tree of Tizen:
MobileLinuxHistory

Even though a number of these mobile Linux operating systems were highly praised by reviewers when they were released, most proved to be commercial failures.

Motorola’s numerous attempts to replace its antiquated P2K+Synergy system with Linux all ended in failures, with all its attempts to develop mobile operating systems being abandoned. Motorola developed a whole string of Linux-based mobile OSes, with names such as LJ, EZX Linux, JUIX, MotoJUIX and MOTOMAGX. All of these operating systems were based on the idea of using a Linux kernel with Java apps, which was an idea that Android eventually turned into a huge success, but Motorola could never manage to commercialize. “LJ,” which was short for “LinuxJava,” was an excellent idea, but it was created in China, and Motorola as a global company mostly ignored it as a Chinese side project. JUIX was created in Sunnyvale, California in 2002 as the successor to P2K+Synergy, but it was abandoned because it was written by programmers who were used to writing code for servers, so it used too much RAM and processing power and was too slow. LJ was renamed as MotoJUIX in an effort to save face when killing off JUIX, but it never got the support it needed inside the company.

Gartner used to report on the market share of smartphones, since there was still an “other” category to speak of, but it no longer bothered after the second quarter of 2018, when Android had 88.0% of the market, Apple’s iOS had 11.9% and “other” claimed 0.029%. Considering the fact that a tech giant like Microsoft threw in the towel after years of trying to compete with the duopoly controlled by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, it is should not be surprise that Linux failed to become a viable alternative in the mobile space.

In nearly every case, Linux on mobile phones has ended in commercial failure. Jolla’s Sailfish OS has managed to hang on since 2013, using the pieces abandoned by Nokia and Intel in MeeGo, but it can hardly be called a success. It basically takes a few models of Sony Xperias and slaps in Sailfish OS and resells them at jolla-devices.com, but its marketing has been abysmal and it uses a proprietary Silica interface so most of the Linux community has ignored its offerings.

The only arguable exception to this string of failures has been KaiOS, which resurrected Mozilla’s Firefox OS from the ashes in 2017 and adapted it to run on phones that use buttons instead of a touch screen. KaiOS is now the third most popular mobile operating system, but that is because the Android and iOS duopoly have simply gobbled up the entire mobile market. According to KaiOS’s web site, 35 phones have been released with KaiOS, but most of them were sold in countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil, where a significant portion of the population want a smartphone, but can only afford a “smart feature phone,” that costs between $25 and $50 and have too low of specs to run Android Go which requires at least 512 KB of RAM and a touch screen. KaiOS can run on as little as 256 KB of RAM, which allows it to reach an untapped market, especially in the developing world.

Nonetheless, the idea of a Linux phone has never died. A whole new crop of Linux phones has cropped up in recent years. Purism started crowdfunding its Librem 5 phone in August 2017 and PINE64 has been working on its PinePhone since October 2018. The Volla Phone is offering Ubuntu Touch and Sailfish OS as options, and Planet Computers has sold a number of PDA’s with Debian as one of the options. The idea of a Linux phone is compelling, and let’s hope that these new Linux phones will succeed, but they faces immense technical challenges to gain any foothold in a market totally dominated by Android and iOS.

1 thought on “The tragic history of mobile Linux

  1. Alex

    Hello dear Amos .My name is Alex, I am from Russia.
    I wanted to say thank you very much for your website and very useful and structured information about Librem 5 .Great work, keep it up ! I wanted to ask you if you can help .Do you know where there is information about all Open-source hardware for phones and laptops ? It would be nice to have a cheat sheet for every libre user)) who could check his phone or laptop at once, e.g. GPU, Modem, Connectivity, Operating system etc. ). When I read your article about Librem 5 and got to the information about the CPU, I immediately realized that I would never buy a phone, because it is easier to make backdoor via CPU.)) I think it will be much comfortable than to check every phone and its parts.)

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s