There seems to be a lot of open source zealotry going on lately over the new crop of “open” touch-screen smartphones coming out. The obvious big contenders are phones that run on Google’s Android, and of course Palm’s WebOS-based Pre. There’s also been a recent announcement regarding LG, and others introducing phones that run LiMo.
So obviously, the big buzz is that all these wonderful phones are running linux now, and all will be right with the world because they’re open platforms and unrestricted and we can write all the wonderful apps we want…. right?
Well, I’m going to make a bold statement here… while a lot of these new platforms claim to be “linux,” there’s more to the story, and users aren’t really using linux.
Saying that Android and WebOS phones are “linux-based” is like saying that the iPhone is “UNIX-based.” In the loosest possible sense you might be able to weasel that into a true statement, but users aren’t truly using the kernel (though you can get some really nice BSD tools running if you jailbreak the iPhone, in which case you probably could truly say you’re using *nix then).
Android boots the linux kernel but then runs the Davlik Virtual Machine on top of it. This is basically modified Java code. It would be better apt to say that Android is more a Java platform than it is a linux platform. The fact that it boots linux is merely a formality, a means to an end.
WebOS is similar. It too boots a linux kernel as a necessary means to get the phone running, but you aren’t truly using Linux. The apps must be written using HTML5, Java or CSS. WebOS would be more accurately called a Web App platform (which is probably how it got its name).
So for now, these aren’t accurately called “Linux” platforms, because users aren’t really using Linux. It’s conceivable that Google and Palm could’ve run their VMs and platforms on top of RIM OS, or Windows Mobile, if that had made sense to them. It just so happens that linux is free and open source and requires no licensing.
Google has been kinda duplicitous on this point. They’ll tacitly speak of linux when they can use that to woo the open source zealots who want to get behind it as a way to strike back at the Big Bad iPhone. But to the general public and the people they want actually using these phones, you’ll hear nary a peep about linux. Google is as it always has been: a company that deals strictly with portable, OS-agnostic web apps, and dreams of an eventual “OS-less” future. Linux just happens to be a convenient tool to get that going for now, and sadly the FOSS community to date has been willing to turn a blind eye to this.
PalmOS on the other hand, calls its platform for what it is: a system that coincidentally boots linux to get up in the morning, but you’re developing web apps and that’s that.
There have been marginally successful true linux-based mobile devices, like the Nokia N800 and N810. They aren’t phones per se, but they do run Maemo, which is based off Debian and runs actual linux apps, including X windowing systems, busybox, Skype, etc.