Recent reports from Taiwan have sparked speculation about the future of the LiMo Foundation, the handset platform consortium backed by NEC, NTT Docomo, Orange, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodafone, which, according to its website, is intended to create “the first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices.” According to local publication DigiTimes, the attitude of Taiwan’s device vendor community has cooled, and it was suggested that the best option for the LiMo Foundation would be to merge with the Linux Foundation, the wider industry group.
While not particularly significant in its own right, the report comes after a bad month for the LiMo Foundation. Last month, Vodafone decided not to continue the development of tailored smartphones using the platform to support its Vodafone 360 service, including axing a device it had in the pipeline which was being developed in partnership with Samsung. The use of LiMo’s platform in the earlier Samsung/Vodafone 360 terminals could have provided LiMo with a flagship device to challenge high-profile competitors such as Android and the iPhone, but instead led to numerous reports of weak sales and poor service/device integration.
The biggest problem for LiMo is that while it got off to a strong start, it has since been overtaken by developments elsewhere in the market. LiMo Foundation was first announced during January 2007, six months before Apple released its first iPhone and ten months before Android (also based on a Linux operating system) was first revealed. But despite backing from a number of industry giants and a reasonable number of handset models shipping using the platform, it was these new upstarts that transformed the smartphone industry – at LiMo’s expense. Several LiMo backers are now very active in the Android community, while LiMo-powered devices have failed to deliver the user experiences to match the iPhone. ZDNet’s take was that “Apple had the size to blow them away, and Google had the wisdom to follow in the correct way.”
In the early days, Motorola looked the best bet to drive the international growth of the platform, being one of the few device-makers to deliver commercial terminals based on LiMo globally. But a strategic review saw Motorola switching its allegiances to Android, and since then, with the exception of the Samsung/Vodafone 360 terminals, most of the LiMo activity has been confined to a single country, Japan, where NEC and Panasonic are supplying products for NTT Docomo. This has effectively seen the technology marginalised, as Apple’s iOS, Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, Android, Symbian OS and even Microsoft’s Windows Mobile have generated more interest on the international stage.
Unlike Android, the LiMo platform has failed to gain critical mass, despite the stated support from significant industry players. With device-makers and operators failing to embrace the technology in any real way, support also failed to grow among the application developer community, as the device user numbers failed to be large enough to generate interest – LiMo Foundation has never said how many devices using its technology have shipped, and the penetration has not been high enough to pull it out of the analyst firms’ “other” category.
The big question is what should the LiMo Foundation do next? The potential to attract a new, high-profile platform licensee to reinvigorate the ecosystem seems limited. Of the biggest handset makers, Nokia is tied to Symbian OS and MeeGo, Sony Ericsson is working with Android, Symbian OS and Windows Mobile (although is expected to drop one of the trio), and existing tier-one LiMo members Samsung and LG Electronics also have their attentions focused elsewhere. The failure of the Vodafone 360 devices to become a commercial success, despite the backing of Vodafone and Samsung, also does little to entice. Renewed operator support could provide LiMo Foundation with a boost, but how easy this will be to achieve when LiMo’s operator partners are already heavily promoting alternative platforms – for example, LiMo founders NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone are also members of the Android-backing Open Handset Alliance – is open to question. And without devices in the market, the developer community, which for obvious reasons tends to follow the money, is also apathetic towards LiMo.
Of course, the Foundation itself still has a lot going for it, not least its wide-ranging support, including that of many of the world’s biggest mobile operators and device vendors, a strong set of technology partners, experience of bringing Linux-based devices to market, and experience of working in the open-source community. The issue is how best to make use of this.
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