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Android has been all over the news lately, after having supposedly eclipsed the iPhone and approaching the Blackberry in share of smartphone shipments in the fourth quarter. Although it’s arguable that the recent launch of the CDMA iPhone for Verizon might dent Android’s growth in the US mobile phone market, the Linux-based OS has enjoyed a meteoric-like rise in OEM and consumer adoption since it was first announced in 2007 – as demonstrated by the string of Android-focused announcements at last month’s CES as well as the anticipated product launches at the upcoming MWC.
In the same fashion as much of the other Android-related news in recent months, the alleged memo circulated from Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop lit up industry news wires yesterday as he declared Nokia behind the times and stuck on “burning” platforms (Symbian and MeeGo). While the underlying message conveyed by Elop may have been surprising to few, his candor certainly was. It was only last year that MeeGo was proclaimed by the company as another viable open source contender to Android for mobile devices. Now it appears as if it will suffer the same fate as LiPS and LiMo before it, unable to muster sustainable market interest and development momentum.
While Android has emerged as the defacto mobile Linux platform choice, it has only begun to make headway within the broader embedded systems market. Yesterday’s announcement of the first open source port of the platform to the PowerPC (PPC) architecture, however, may accelerate its penetration into other embedded device classes.
Android was, of course, initially developed as a consumer-facing, mobile phone platform. As a result, it made perfect sense for Android to be developed for the ARM architecture, which is by far the predominant processor family used in the domain. Although ARM’s penetration into other device classes has continued to accelerate over recent years, the landscape of the broader embedded market has (and will) remained much more heterogeneous due to the diverse nature of the different system requirements across different industries – from consumer electronics to aerospace to telecommunications infrastructure, etc.
Our 2010 embedded system engineering results, however, already showed Android’s use in a number of other application classes beyond mobile phones - from RFID readers to residential utility monitoring/control to automotive infotainment, among others. Although real-time constraints will certainly limit the applicability of Android in certain applications (e.g. telecom infrastructure, military/aerospace, etc.), we expect that its porting to another widely used embedded architecture (yes, we know it is already ported for MIPS…) will begin to cannibalize the non-consumer-facing markets already utilizing Linux in greater frequency. The investment, ecosystem and rate of innovation around Android are now far too compelling to OEMs looking to the benefits of a Linux open source solution.
Three years ago, we did expect that the evolution of open source offerings would continue to pressure the traditional ecosystems and business models around Linux in the mobile market. I don’t think any of us expected that it would have occurred this quickly, that it would be completely dominated by Android, or that it would have had as profound an impact in other embedded markets.
The bigger question now is will the non-Android Linux commercial market still be able to sustain itself or will the market revert itself to a new center of gravity around Android and a state similar to the early 2000s that was focused on a much smaller subset of mainline distributions, before the continued evolution of specific vertical market requirements led to the development of a myriad number of distributions targeted at the different industry-specific applications?