The State of Open Mobile OSes

Open operating systems, for most folks, means that the operating system is essentially free. The average computer user knows that Linux is free, as in beer, while Windows costs money. The case is the same for mobile OSes although, until very recently, the idea of purposely using an open OS has been a fairly nebulous concept.

To be clear open mobile OSes have been around for years, starting most prominently with the QTopia project that ran on ARM hardware found in many PDAs and phones. The Linux kernel plays well with almost any platform, making it ideal for small installations.

With the announcement of an “open” version of Symbian coming soon, let’s take a look at what open means to the average consumer.

Android – Google’s smartphone OS is probably about as open as you can get. It’s designed to run on almost any hardware and includes a fully open and free UI complete with source code. It costs nothing for carriers to use and if, if used in its official form, simply brings Google apps and content to the fore at opportune times. To the average consumer Android should be able to add smartphone functionality to a number of odd devices, including phones that once depended on proprietary, no-name operating systems like the Motorola RAZR.

iPhone OSX – iPhone’s OSX uses a Mach kernel which, like Linux, is fairly open and well-documented. Unlike Linux, however, the price of the iPhone’s kernel is bundled into the cost of the actual phone and cannot be sold to third parties. The SDK or programming tools for the OS, however, are quite popular and are free. This ensures that programmers can harness the full power of the OS without having to dig too deeply into the core. As a whole, OS X is as close to being open as you can get without really being “open” and fully cross-platform.

Windows Mobile – Windows Mobile is a closed operating system. The common user interface remains unchanged across devices, however, third-party applications can be developed by writing programs using software like Visual C++. Windows Mobile also makes use of the .NET Compact Framework, which is similar to the .NET Framework found on Windows-based PCs.

Symbian – Currently, the Symbian operating system is not classified as open source, although with Nokia’s recent announcement, it will soon be available under the royalty-free Eclipse Public License. As it stands now, though, handset manufacturers that make use of the Symbian operating system are only provided with certain parts of the source code. It is expected to be fully opened up within the next two years. Symbian is the most widely used mobile operating system in the world today.

One interesting aside: there is an excellent chance that Symbian will not make it through its conversion to openness alive. The OS is old and crotchety, unable to handle data intensive applications with the same aplomb RIM or even the iPhone OS have. Once the platform is open, Nokia will most likely put it out to pasture, watch as the developers branch it off, and then build something entirely new. As popular as it is, I doubt many of us would miss Symbian’s various foibles and flaws.