Archive for the ‘ Uncategorized ’ Category

Android Cat Herding

Guest Blog for Black Duck Software

Part I – Synchronizing / Harmonizing Android Source Code & Licenses

In earlier Black Duck blog posts, I highlighted the complexity underlying the Android mobile application platform, especially complications arising from the multi-sourced nature of the OS and its enabling middleware.

At the close of that blog, I listed five challenge areas and promised to elaborate, and to follow up with ways to address them.  In Part I, I’ll expand on the challenges, in Part II, I will examine some solutions.

1. Unique Licensing and Copyright of Patches / Contributions
While the Android project promotes a global Apache 2.0 licensing regime, there is no formal submission or copyright assignment process (cp. those for Linux and for GNU projects).  This somwhat casual patch submission and management process results in diverse and sometimes uncertain provenance of Android platform code (see my earlier blog for examples from the Black Duck Software study).

Read More . . .


Android Platform Code – Turtles Most of the Way Down

Guest Blog for Black Duck Software

Part 1 – Hidden Complexity

This week Android application developers from around the world are gathering in San Mateo at AnDevCon – the Android Developers Conference. While they are soaking up tutorials on UI haptics and building apps with Ruby and HTML5, I find myself pondering the particulars of the Android platform.

A quick glance at the conference curriculum (and Gingerbread documentation) reveals Android as ever more resource-rich, with a growing repertoire of APIs and capabilities to leverage emerging hardware (like the barometer on the Motorola XOOM) and to meet developer community requirements.  In providing the underpinnings for its burgeoning app portfolio (approaching 300,000 –, Google and its Open Handset Alliance (OHA) partners have created an increasingly complex mobile applications platform.

A Daunting Integration Task

The underlying complexity of Android platform code can be daunting to developers, especially to software teams at chipset suppliers, device manufacturers (OEMs) and integrators.   Anyone needing to integrate Android platform code with hardware and system software will be concerned about

  • Managing the 165 different packages that comprise the Android GIT repository
  • Tracking changes in over 80,000 source code files
  • Integrating Android internal system code, device drivers, Dalvik code, middleware and applications with myriad external repositories
  • Maintaining, integrating and QAing company-specific additions to the platform (e.g., UI customizations and Dalvik performance enhancements)
  • Reconciling the rights and obligations represented in at least 19 different licenses
  • Repeating this exercise every 3-4 months (hello Gingerbread and Android 3.0!)

Read more . . .

Black Duck Mobile Open Source Study: Out of the Attic, Into the Spotlight

Guest Blog for Black Duck Software

Mobile Open Source:

Out of the Attic, Into the Spotlight

Only a few years ago “open source in mobile” was like a crazy cousin or unpleasant uncle, barred from family gatherings and discussed in whispers.  While the first Linux-based handsets appeared almost a decade ago (like the Motorola A760), open source remained in the background, lurking in platform code, far from application developers and the mobile end-user experience.

Mobile is different, or is it?

Mobile, while standards-based, has for over two decades been a proprietary affair.  “Mobile is different,” I was told repeatedly by operators and platform suppliers at the Linux Phone Standards Forum. “Operators and the FCC mandate closed devices for secure networks,” they continued.  “Mobile IP needs special protection,” lectured lawyers at consortia and handset OEMs, imposing impenetrable 100+ page IPR documents whose sole purpose was to corral community code and maintain legacy status quo. . .


Will Android Drive Mobile Commodization?

Little Androids, On the Hillside . . .

Yesterday, my friend and fellow analyst Andreas Constantinou of VisionMobile delivered an excellent guest blog for mobile virtualization supplier OK Labs.  In his post, Andreas posits that Android is changing the macroeconomics of mobile, increasingly to resemble the PC business.  In particular, he highlights the emergence of cookie-cutter Android reference designs and ever-cheaper Android-based handsets from chipset vendors, ODMs and contract manufacturers in Taiwan and China.  He segregates the coming wave of Android handset OEMs into Leaders, Innovators and Assemblers and projects that by 2015 the top 5% of the handset market will enjoy 50% of the revenue, in concert with today’s global PC marketplace.

There are indeed striking parallels between the PC business and trends in mobile-wireless, as well as important, persistent differences.

In the mid-90s, a decade before Linux Pundit, I worked as Country Manager at Acer Brazil. We constantly referenced Acer founder Stan Shih‘s “Smile Curve”. Let’s use my old boss’s paradigm (slightly updated) to compare the two markets.

Stan Shih's Smile Curve

Pre-commoditization, PC value-added was dominated by manufacturers cum hardware integrators — originally IBM, Digital and their peers.  PC expertise sat in the hands of a few,  those companies drew on components of their choosing and went to market through direct sales channels.  Industry standardization gave rise to the “PC-AT virtual machine” (BIOS, memory maps, peripherals, etc.) and more importantly, the emphasis on PCs being defined by DOS and Windows software (and not the box they lived in).  Standardization on these h/w and s/w parameters initiated the value shift into the “smile” that Stan described:  the highest value today lies in key components — CPU, HDD, display, memory, GPU, etc. and OS — and in brand and channel, and not in with integrators and motherboard manufacturers.

Another angle to describe this value-added rictus is with barriers to entry:  almost anyone today can put together a whitebox PC from available components — take a trip to Fry’s or visit the Mom-and-Pop PC stores that still dot developing countries.  Design and manufacturing-wise, any decent team of hardware engineers can start a motherboard company is 9-12 months.  But how much time and money must you invest to ship your own processors, hard drives, DRAMs or LCD displays?  Ditto for brand and channel, which takes years and millions of Dollars and Euros and RMB to cultivate.

The global handset market, from its inception in the 1980s through most of its history, cleaved closely the legacy PC (frowning) ecosystem:  handset OEMs defined what is a mobile phone (especially a smartphone), and held value-added captive.  Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, LG, Apple and their cohorts essentially dictate(d) to chipset vendors and to OS suppliers the form and function of the shiny mobile baubles they produce(d).

The mobile business, however, departed and still departs markedly from its PC analogs in key parameters:

  • handsets were (and mostly still are) content delivery vehicles (voice, data, video) and not stand-alone compute platforms (cp. pre-Internet PCs vs. modern desktops)
  • core handset requirements were/are determined not by OEMs but by their channel partners, the mobile network operators (MNOs)
  • wireless connectivity (GPRS, CDMA, etc.) while standardized as protocols and embedded in mobile chipsets, is not available to all comers:  narrow and deep silicon sales channels and certification/homologation requirements restrict who can field a phone in most global markets; building a quality radio set is still an art.
  • while barriers to entry in building handsets notch incrementally lower, building and profitably marketing mobile handsets is still difficult and arcane

The introduction and increasing ubiquity of Android is leveling the playing field and certainly can have the impact described by Andreas:  lower-cost (cheap?) Android-based smartphones built by upstart Asian OEMs and sold through non-MNO retail and self-service channels.  But building and shipping quality Android-based handsets (let alone functional ones) has consistently proven more difficult than it should be.  Even branded T1 Android phones have received lackluster reviews. Moreover, while CES and MWC this year and last were replete with Android phone announcements, most devices have been late to market (or yet to ship), with underwhelming user experiences.

I do not argue that like the PC marketplace, the Android ecosystem is increasingly driven by applications.  Indeed, the Android Market is flush with thousands of apps and poised to give the Apple iTunes App Store stiff competition n the next 12-18 months.  But, for the moment at least, handsets, even smartphones are still phones first and application platforms second (I own Nokia Maemo devices but I use my iPhone all the time).  OEM expertise still rules in delivering mobile phones to market, more in concert with the notebook market than its whitebox PC parent.

The undeniable value-added of technology vendors (Qualcomm, TI, Samsung et al.), of handset OEMs (Motorola, HTC, Samsung) and of full-service operator-centric channel will for years keep the mobile market from grinning Stan Shih’s pearly smile, or even from flashing the notebook sneer.  Instead we’ll have the Mobile Handset Bite:

The "Handset Bite"

Unlike the PC Smile Curve, the Bite will be shaped by

  • Android itself not adding value, but the hardware technology to support it doing so, as will key s/w components like CODECs, media players, home screens and of course, applications
  • Upstart Tier II/III OEMs and ODMs adding little value to Android itself and the chipsets it runs on, but Tier I OEMs building Android handsets will enjoy better margins (sans royalties and subsidies), and delivering Android-based differentiated user experiences, hopefully/eventually on a par with Apple iPhone
  • Cheap Android-based handsets flooding BRICK, developing and even developed markets through non-operator channels, with mixed results

So, to answer the question posed by the title of this blog — Yes and No.  Android will not commoditize the mobile market (more than it already is), but it will help to keep it polarized between Tier I devices with high value-added and the rest of the (commodity) pack.

Also interesting will be a new category,  emerging from Tier I OEMs – the Mass Market Smartphone.  More on this topic in my next blog.

Mentor Graphics Acquires Embedded Alley, Unveils Embedded Open Source Strategy

Continuing the trend of consolidation started by Intel’s acquisition of Wind River, Mentor Graphics announced today that the EDA vendor was acquiring Embedded Alley, a supplier of embedded Linux and Android solutions and services.  In bringing Embedded Alley into the Mentor Graphics family, the company (finally) makes its entry into the open source embedded marketplace, complementing its deeply-embedded legacy proprietary RTOSes, Nucleus and VRTX, with the Embedded Alley Development System for Linux and for Android, along with complementary services.

The announcement comes on the heels of Embedded Alley’s very successful launch of tools and services for deploying the Google Android platform in non-mobile applications, specifically for MIPS and Power Architecture CPUs in designs ranging from portable multimedia to home entertainment to automotive to instrumentation to industrial control.  These applications align closely with Mentor Graphics embedded target markets, and Embedded Alley competence in Linux and Android clearly  motivated the acquisition.

Mentor Graphics and Embedded Software – A Brief History

Mentor Graphics is unique among EDA suppliers in making consistent, long-term investments in embedded software to complement the company’s more traditional design tools and services offerings.   With the acquisition of  Embedded Alley,  a relatively young company, but one with already strong traction in embedded open source, the mature Mentor Graphics Embedded Software Division substantiates its long-held vision for full device life-cycle coverage, from silicon design through device software deployment.

The history of that business unit reflects Mentor’s investments towards that same end:

  • 1990-1994 : Mentor partnered closely with Microtec Research (my employer until 1993)
  • 1994 : Microtec Research acquires Ready Systems (provider of VRTX, founded by Jim Ready of more recent MontaVista renown)
  • 1995 : Mentor Graphics acquires Microtec Research and established Embedded S/W Division, with compiler (MCC), debugger (XRAY) and RTOS (VRTX) offerings
  • 2002 : Mentor Graphics acquires Accelerated Technology, providers of the Nucleus RTOS and tools
  • 2006 : Mentor acquired Embedded Performance Inc, provider of JTAG hardware debug tools

Key Points

The announcement carries implications for reshaping the embedded software landscape:

  • The Mentor Graphics Embedded Software Division has always been a part of the a much larger software products company.  The announcement signals Mentor’s design to grow its embedded business, but as a services offering
  • While Nucleus (and VRTX before it) enjoyed most of its design wins as a deeply embedded OS (e.g., in mobile, for baseband processing in over 1B handsets), the Linux and Android technology purveyed by Embedded Alley is definitively for hosting highly visible value-added applications
  • Unlike the Intel acquisition of Wind River, this merger is not designed to pull silicon into new designs (e.g., Atom in 3G mobile) but rather to expand a broad base of non-mobile embedded projects using Linux and Android (although I am sure that mobile is not 100% off the table), to complement Mentor’s EDA tools and broaden the company’s ability to address OEM product life cycles
  • Also unlike the Intel-Wind River deal, in which Intel’s vast open source capability and experience was joined to Wind’s lesser but still mature Linux services capability, Mentor is looking to Embedded Alley to reinvent their embedded business around Linux, Android and open source.

Wednesday’s Press Event

The acquisition was announced on Wednesday, July 29 in San Francisco at the Design Automation Conference (DAC), at an exclusive press-only event.  Presentations by Mentor Graphics and Embedded Alley executives were followed by partner talks from ARM, MIPS and those companies’ silicon licensees.  The lineup also featured a lively pitch by Jim Zemlin of the Linux Foundation.

The New Embedded Linux/Android Opportunity, Post Wind River

With Embedded Alley on board, Mentor is well positioned to exploit the highly visible gap left when Intel snapped up Wind River.  Despite Alameda’s strong messages of continuity, OS, tools and services companies have been circling around semiconductor suppliers hoping to secure relationships and design wins for ARM, MIPS and Power Architecture that Wind is unlikely to pursue as part of Intel and the Atom juggernaut.

While there is no denying that Intel’s acquisition leaves Wind River’s traditional silicon relationships open to new challengers, those relationships were never exclusive.  Mentor and the rest of industry will still have to execute on their hopes/intentions to exploit the gaps left by Wind-Intel, with competitive technologies, platforms and services, something few have been able to do to date, on both tilted and level playing fields.

Deep Background and Fun Facts

I myself have a long history with Mentor and its Embedded Software division.  I actually worked for Microtec Research from 1988 to 1993 as product manager for XRAY and for the popular 68000 tool suite.  I exited right before the merger with Ready Systems and the subsequent purchase of the company by Mentor, and moved to Brazil (1993-1996, the Lost Years).   In 2005, I actually presented on embedded Linux at the Mentor Graphics sales kickoff in San Francisco.  I was asked by then VP of Marketing Robert Day to give the team a “wake up call” and I did my best to open their eyes.   In the face of persistent denial on the part of the Nucleus OS and tools sales teams, I explained that Linux and OSS were already eating their proverbial lunch, and that OEMs deployed the open source OS not BECAUSE of its attributes but rather IN SPITE of those same attributes.

The acquisition brings a chapter of embedded software history full circle:  as cited above , Microtec acquired Ready Systems and was then bought by Mentor.   In 1999, Jim Ready exited Mentor Graphics to found MontaVista Software (I was there too!).  Almost the entirety of the Embedded Alley team, from CEO Pete Popov to CTO Dan Malek to COO Matt Locke to the firm’s two dozen other staffers worked for MontaVista before founding/joining Embedded Alley.  President Paul Staudacher worked at Mentor until he joined MontaVista in 1999.

And now, Embedded Alley is “back”, inside Mentor, where they will hopefully reinvent the company’s embedded business and probably a goodly portion of the EDA and embedded industries as well.

The Path to a Linux Netbook Comeback – Look to Google Android

Last week, I made a case for rethinking the role of Linux in mobile computing all together – eschewing the endless game of catchup inherent in the desktop/notebook market (as it applies to increasingly able netbooks), that Linux-based netbooks need to look Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks.

Readers responded, most interestingly to debate whether netbook vendors ever really wanted to ship Linux as a long-term solution, or whether ASUS and others had just “run up the Linux flag” as a way to get Redmond to negotiate better price points.

I was happy to read that Matt Asay saw potential for mobile Linux-based devices as I still do – his Open Road blog entry “Hit Microsoft where it ain’t” is definitely worth reading, as is Dana Blankenhorn’s ZDnet blog on “Linux and the Channel“.  Sam Dean narrows the discussion from the whole channel down to the essential issue of product differentiation in his thoughtful blog entry “Linux Netbooks – What’s the secret sauce for sales?

But is it really too late for Linux on Netbooks?

Is this potentially vibrant new marketplace doomed to share the fate of desktop Linux? Real hope lies in learning from the desktop debacle and re-inventing the open source OSS as a first-class service delivery vehicle.  In that vein, I have listed some suggestions for netbook manufacturers, purveyors of Linux and the developer community:

Focus on integrating into operator programs

Even if you think that operators face disintermediation and dumb-pipe obsolescence, they still “own” the networks and are the drivers of current and next-generation rollout. They also represent a channel focused on service delivery as opposed to desktop hardware and accompanying expectations for margins etc.

Build on handset design concepts, not desktop expectations

If consumers wanted a Linux desktop experience, they’d have long since bought into actual desktops running Ubuntu and other consumer friendly distros. By contrast, Linux actually provides the foundation for a swath of very successful handsets, from the Motorola Ming, which handily captured a full percent of the Chinese mobile market – that’s 30-40 million units for a single handset model – to NEC Panasonic handsets in Japan to current generation Motorola ROKRs and RAZRs and the exploding market of Android-based devices.

Consumers buy and use these devices not because they run free software in general or Linux in particular, but because they deliver operator services in stylish and functional packages.

Focus on user experience, not just BoM

Even if operators are intent on squeezing costs to preserve services margins, Linux-based mobile devices must still provide compelling user experiences. Put aside the KDE vs. GNOME debate and focus on helping both operators and ISVs deliver applications – in this space the competition isn’t Windows, it’s the iPhone apps store, it’s Blackberry enterprise integration and outside the US, it’s the SymbianOS ecosystem.

Rather than focus on the “mobile desktop”, provide applications resources for rich graphics, multimedia, gesture-based MMI, skinning, and personalization in a netbook-sized package.

Look to Android as netbook platform

Many Linux purists dismiss Android as the insidious invention of the Google Borg and as a shiny tomb for the Linux kernel buried inside it. However, it may be the only viable vector for bringing Linux and open source to programmable mass-market devices. Android is cropping up everywhere – originally targeted to appeal to Tier II and III Asian handset OEMs and ODMs, it now constitutes the core of platform strategies at Tier I mobile suppliers like Samsung, Motorola, and LG. More importantly, Android caters to operator requirements for a services-centric customizable user experience.

Whether or not you like Android for its own sake, it creates opportunities for partnership among Google, operators, ISVs/OSVs, and other third parties. As a platform and a phenomenon it is building bridges across market chasms once considered unspannable. Just consider HTC, once a bastion of Windows Mobile handsets. The Taiwanese OEM is today the first and leading provider on phones based on Android.

Google, OHA members and others have also telegraphed their plans to deploy Android as a netbook OS. Early rumblings have emerged from Freescale for a $199 netbook based on their i.MX CPU, and other mobile-savvy semiconductor suppliers like TI and Marvell are likely to follow suit with their ARM-based offerings. Artesian efforts have also surfaced, demonstrating Android ported to currently available netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC.

Android Beyond Mobile

Android for operator-subsidized netbooks will also gain momentum and credibility from related deployment and crossover onto other content delivery devices, like digital TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs, satellite receivers and automotive in-vehicle infotainment systems.  Earlier this week Embedded Alley announced delivery of a development system targeting MIPS-based devices.  MIPS Technologies and their architecture licensee RMI also announced plans for Android support.

As always, I appreciate reader comments and feedback.  I am especially interested what readers think of the current state of Android and its chances for success in mobile devices and beyond.

In the next and final segment of this topic, I will talk about trends in the underlying mobile processors, and then zoom right up to the synergies among netbooks, Linux and the Cloud.

Nokia to Buy Symbian, Dive Headfirst into Open Source

By now, most interested readers have heard the news about Nokia and Symbian:


  • Nokia to buy the 52.1 percent of Symbian shares it doesn’t already hold
  • Stop paying annual US$250M to other Symbian stakeholders
  • Merge Symbian with S60 organization to create the Symbian Foundation
    • Also covers UIQ and MOAP platforms
  • New entity to launch SymbianOS under EPL


Interestingly, the mobile press and blogosphere have been quite reserved in their reception of this “fantastic news”. From my point of view, formation of the Symbian Foundation is GOOD NEWS for the Symbian platform and for mobile open source in general.

However, despite increasing levels of deployment (200M phones in 2007), is not the darling of analysts and pundits, and definitely not the golden child of developers.

The challenges facing Nokia itself and also ahead of the announced Symbian Foundation are numerous and daunting. These challenges organize themselves into three areas:

Technical Challenges

  • Making the new platform easier to program
    • SymbianOS programming model famously complex
  • New platform unwieldy
    • Need to support SymbianOS, S60, UIQ, MOAP and also TrollTech’s Qt/Qtopia in single s/w base
    • Stated goal of backward compatibility could cripple innovation
      • Symbian OS v9 and S60 3rd edition
      • Java, Adobe FlashLite and Microsoft Silverlight
      • Compliance suite will be late

Building A Shared Platform

  • Dilution of Tier I Resources
    • Foundation members LG, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung Electronics, TI and Vodafone already members of LiMo, OHA
    • Are there enough platform developers to go around?
  • Discourage further fragmentation
    • It’s a myth that commercial platforms like SymbianOS and MW WindowsMobile are unitary
    • ISVs already suffer from minor and major fissures in each platform
  • Opening SymbianOS
    • Platform complex mix of IP
    • Could see sigficant delays in opening under EPL
      • Cf. OpenSolaris, Java, Android

Community Challenges

  • Build community beyond orbit of Nokia
    • Open source is not a verb: opening SymbianOS code under EPL does not make it into living, breathing “open source”
    • Building free-standing community for large complex code base is “non trivial”
    • Danger of cutting CAPEX but not enhance ecosystem
  • Engage Broader Audience
    • NA : single digit market share, no mind share
    • SA : price points out of reach for SymbianOS handsets
  • Make Foundation Egalitarian
    • Despite low cost of membership, tilted towards founding/board members

Real Impact

For Nokia and the SymbianOS, this move is either a stroke of genius or a move born of desperation. It will certainly help to lower the cost of entry onto SymbianOS and into the very tidy Symbian ecosystem. Remember, one of the drivers for the swath of mobile Linux initiatives and platforms, and also for continuing investment by Microsoft has been the difficulty of dealing with Symbian and the fear of living in Nokia’s shadow on a platform dominated by the Finnish mobile giant.

Whether it will actually motivate new platform deployments and the rollout of new applications and services is debatable.

Whither Mobile Linux?

Nokia’s announcement concretizes the ongoing balkanization of mobile platforms around consortium-led open source and commercial entities:

  • SymbianOS – Symbian Foundation
  • Android – Open Handset Alliance, built on Linux and neo-Java (Dalvik), led by Google
  • LiMo – The LiMo Foundation, built on Linux and led by Motorola, NTT and other others
  • Windows Mobile – despite Redmond’s “shared source” programs and loud protestations, still a closed proprietary effort
  • iPhone – Based at least partially on open source BSD and dominated by Apple (to say the least). The jury is still out on the impact of the iPhone SDK and as-yet unreleased 2.0 software
  • RIM – the Blackberry platform has a phalanx of even more fanatic users than the iPhone, but is increasingly relegated to niche usage (a lucrative corporate IT niche, but not a growing one)

As with the launch of OpenSolaris, I question whether an open Symbian OS will draw developers away from Linux. Probably not – the new platform will just provide an open basis for developers and ecosystem players already engaged with Nokia/Symbian.

And just as with Sun’s kimono-loosening, the opening of SymbianOS will make it more difficult for many current Symbian ecosystem players to remain profitable, accustomed as they are to 100% proprietary dealings.

Shallow End of the Pool?

Don’t forget that SymbianOS is definitively a smartphone platform, and that smartphones still only occupy about 8-10% of the billion unit global handset market. That’s the shallow end of the mobile swimming pool. Ask yourself, how deep are available developer resources and how boyant is end-user patience?

Watch your head, shareholders!

Finland Needs Trolls

How Trolltech Complements Nokia Internal and External Technology

Upon reflection, gossip-mongering, and even more reflection, the Nokia acquisition of Trolltech begins to make more sense.

Look Beyond Maemo

Maemo, the applications platform that runs on Nokia 770/N800 and family, bases its Hildon UI framework on GTK. the main open source rival to Trolltech Qt. These web pads and the software that drives them are a market experiment for Nokia, albeit a strategic experiment. They’ve evidently had as much internal impact with the Finnish mobile giant as they have outside, in particular they’ve

  • engendered (additional) rivalry among Nokia divisions focused on Linux (web tablets, Nokia networks) and those who build SymbianOS and legacy-based phone-ware (S40, S60 et al)
  • heightened internal perceptions of platform fragmentation and given urgency to calls for cross-platform compatibility (which Qt offers, crossing over embedded and desktop OSes)
  • highlighted the need within Nokia for more ubiquitous FOSS and Linux competence

Motorola Impact

Did Nokia take out a key Motorola mobile supplier to stymie their mobile competitor? Probably not. Just like the folks in Redmond, Nokia spends its time worrying about Apple and Google. It’s hard to argue with that sensibility: Tampere is better served by looking ahead, worrying about threats to come instead of troubled competitors, over whom they leapfrogged long ago.

Nokia and Trolltech: Out loud and on the Qt

Bill Weinberg, — Reposted from

Today, Nokia announced its intention to acquire UI application framework provider Trolltech ASA . This move on Nokia’s part is touted as facilitating “application development for multiple platforms and devices”, and indeed one of Trolltech’s claims to fame is the cross platform agility of its Qt framework. I have already encountered waves of exuberance (rational and otherwise) about the virtues of this acquisition for Nokia, but little discussion of the trends and values underlying it.

Trolltech Background

Established in 1994, Trolltech built its fortunes on launching, supporting and commercializing the Qt graphical application framework. Qt exists as both a commercial offering and an open source project. To some degree, Trolltech pioneered the concept of dual licensing, by which two or more licenses apply to a single code base. In the Trolltech Qt case, the company offers a commercial license (with royalties) for deployment in commercial applications (desktop and embedded) and a FOSS license for development of and deployment in FOSS projects. Recently, Trolltech updated the FOSS license for Qt and for other code it licenses to employ GPLv3.

In 2006, Trolltech enjoyed a fairly succesful IPO (OSE TROLL), and today enjoys the position of the ISV with the greatest number of deploymenst on Linux-based mobile phones. Among their OEM customers are Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and others, who ship upwards of three dozen handset models with Qt and the Qtopia application set. Indeed, one of the most successful Linux-based phones to date, the Motorola A1200 (MOTOMING) garnered an unprecedented 1% share of China’s entire mobile market.

Qt enjoys a large developer base and also a worldwide end-user
following around the K-Desktop (KDE) for Linux and other OSes. KDE
boasts an active community and is the default desktop for many Linux
distributions. Indeed, while recently best known for its embedded
wins, Trolltech reportedly garners the majority of its revenues from
desktop ISVs.

Trolltech Challenges

Rosy past does not always translate into lucrative present and future. While today, Qt and Qtopia represent the leader in mobile framework deployments (in a highly fragmented field), their position in embedded /mobile is less then 100% solid:

  • Motorola and other OEMs have stated publicly and privately that they intend to move away from Qt and Qtopia in the mid and even short term, designing with and deploying instead GTK+, the GIMP Took Kit (part of GNOME).
  • OEMs of all stripes, especially those is an Asia, are reportedly turning away from Qt and Qtopia to reduce the software burden on their bills-of-material. They justify the move not just on financial grounds, but claim that current level and quality of Trolltech support does not justify the additional development and deployment costs. The acquisition is likely to accelerate this trend.
  • Mobile stack providers ACCESS and Azingo , the OpenMoko project, and Nokia’s have also gone with GTK. Stack providers Fluffy Spider Technologies and Mizi Research do not use Qt, nor will Palm in its Linux-based phones. Among Linux-based stack providers, only a la Mobile continues to integrate and ship Qt and Qtopia.
  • Standards bodies, consortia and other .orgs, even those in which Trolltech participated, participates or plans to participate, have standardized on GTK rather than Qt. These bodies include LiMO, LiPS, and OSDL/Linux Foundation (Desktop Linux). Trolltech quite visibly exited the last two and recently made hay about joining LiMO at the beginning of this year. The newest addition to the Linux-based knitting circle, OHA/Android, eschews native frameworks entirely, basing its UI on the Dalvek Java dialect (and so not on Qt, either)
  • In 2006, Trolltech released the Greephone , a software and hardware-based mobile prototyping kit. While it received initially positive reviews, it never caught the imagination of the developer and OEM communities. While it boasted “real” phone h/w (instead of ATX or other evaluation board form factors), it offered too little to Tier I OEMs and was too closed to satisfy the yearnings of FOSS developers.
  • Free and Open Source ideologues have never liked Trolltech’s dual license strategy. While KDE (and to a lesser extent Qt itself) enjoy sizable and active development communities, many developers claim they resent having their work taken into Qt and commercialized without gains for themselves.

In light of these and other challenges facing Trolltech, the acquisition by Nokia represents a tidy and lucrative exit strategy.

Benefits for Nokia

In theory, Nokia receives a lot of value for its money and stock: mobile deployments, easy-to-use and ubiquitous Qt technology, and platform software that crosses desktop and mobile platform barriers. But key questions remain:

  • Nokia already invested heavily in Hildon (underlying Maemo), based on GTK, for its 770, N800 and other web tablets. While Trolltech has successfully demo’d Qt and Qtopia on Nokia hardware (as it did at LinuxWorld last year), it seems unlikely that Nokia would change over to Qt.
  • Even if Nokia were interested in Qt and Qtopia for their own sakes, why buy the Troll when you can get Troll tech on reasonable commercial terms?
  • Nokia already has its own smartphone OS and UI – SymbianOS. The company vocally positions SymbianOS as a hedge against Microsoft. Will a second mobile stack strengthen or prune that hedge?

Of course there are other factors to consider, outside of Nokia’s own OEM operations:

  • Motorola has been slow to act on its roadmap to move away from Qt to GTK. Even if Schaumburg negotiated a perpetual license with Trolltech, will Motorola want a key mobile technology to rest in the hands of its number one competitor?
  • The LiMO foundation, founded by Motorola, NTT, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodaphone, is aligned and allied to counter Nokia’s number one handset supplier status. With Trolltech just having joined LiMO, is Nokia also lining up to combat OHA/Android, or just coverings its bases?
  • Some speculate that Nokia will abolish the commercial branch of Qt, Qtopia and other Trolltech product lines. Would making Qt completely open and free also make it completely ubiquitous?
  • With Trolltech’s acquisition, there is one fewer free-standing open source company that is also public. Besides Red Hat, how many are there?