Interview: LiMo Foundation Executive Director Morgan Gillis

Last week at Mobilize ’08, I had the opportunity to sit down with Morgan Gillis, Executive Director of the LiMo Foundation. This industry consortium was formed last year and has been tasked with building a scalable Linux platform for use in the mobile handset market.

LiMo Logo

The LiMo Foundation (shorthand for Linux on Mobile Foundation) has had recent success with the release of their initial software stack. LiMo is currently being used on 23 handsets throughout the world. Membership has grown from an initial 6 members to dozens today. The Foundation rolls include mobile network operators (including NTT Docomo and Vodafone), handset companies (including Motrola, NEC and many more), and software companies.

JH: What Is LiMo Foundation and why was it formed?

MG: The LiMo Foundation was founded as an industry consortium at the beginning of 2007 with the purpose of creating a Linux mobile handset operating system (OS) and offering the OS to handset makers and application developers to write applications on top of.

LiMo was created because the industry had a very strong need for handset platforms that could be adopted by all handset companies. The current offerings from Nokia and Microsoft were technologically sound, however issues remained with the ownership and governance structure. The industry wanted something that wasn’t being offered and controlled by single company.

The industry felt unsatisfied at the current platform offerings with regards to upcoming applications, content, and services to mobile consumers. The industry saw the potential mobile Internet applications and services. Mobile networks operators (MNOs) were building out 3G networks, but the problem remained that there wasn’t a common operating system and platform to build futuristic mobile applications upon. LiMo was made to create a new mobile handset platform to address this void.

LiMo is not controlled by one company or entity. It was purposely set up to consist of handset makers (including Motorola), MNOs (including Vodafone and NTT Docomo, and software companies. The membership has grown from 6 members to dozens now.

There are 8 major Tier 1 MNOs and some major independent ISPs involved with the Foundation. With this platform now built by the industry consortium, the trick is to now draw application developers in to create cutting edge services that excite mobile customers.

JH: With the mobile operating system market already being a crowded one, is there room for another Linux-based Mobile OS?

MG:It’s not a case for there being room for another one (mobile OS/platform), the issue is that there is a structural need for one. If you look at the current market, you have Android from Google and Nokia/Symbian. Both camps have said they intend to put their mobile OS in the hands of some sort of consortium, however, there will still be a single commercial entity at the helm.

The industry needs something else, some other option that is under balanced ownership and control. The mobile industry has a need for LiMo. Linux is a natural system for this new platform as it’s completely open and not owned by anybody.

JH: What was LiMo’s reaction to the news about Nokia acquiring Symbian and ultimately open sourcing the Symbian OS?

MG:We would say it was the right thing to do. It was expected that there would be some move of this nature at this point. However, the move came a bit earlier than expected.

JH: Do you think Nokia’s move was pushed by Android coming to the market?

MG: We actually think it was pushed by LiMo. LiMo’s sudden and strong initial growth created an alternative that was emerging so quickly that it couldn’t be ignored by Nokia. Their response was one that was expected.

The question remains of whether Nokia will be able to participate in a consortium where every move is made in a open and transparent way. This will likely take 2-3 years to answer. Nokia will be by far the largest contributor of technology to the consortium surrounding Symbian. It will take time to see if the consortium will operate in a balanced manner.

JH: With three classes of participants including handset makers, mobile network operators, and application developers, has LiMo found it hard to balance all these parties and their corresponding agendas?

MG: This is what the bread and butter of what LiMo does in balancing and orchestrating the intents of these parties in order to deliver the platform and value proposition that Linux on Mobile represents. Sometimes the balance is extremely difficult, but it’s what we are good at.

JH: Do you see Symbian and Google Android as threats?

MG: What LiMo is really about is capitalizing and bringing more innovation into the mobile industry. We believe that there is enough room for LiMo and OHA to bring new dimensions of innovation into play.

If the two consortiums are successful, that is great news for the mobile industry.

JH: Is LiMo’s greatest growth opportunity in the emerging markets or in established ones?

MG: We believe dramatic growth potential exists in both. If you look at mature markets’ handset numbers, sales are stagnant. However, if you look deeper, you see most users in mature markets are merely using their handsets for basic dialing and messaging. The opportunity LiMo Foundation has here is to ignite use of the mobile internet.

If you look at the emerging markets, there is a great straightforward opportunity for volume growth. Also, we are trying to leapfrog the voice/messaging play there and get these users utilizing the mobile internet from the time they decide to buy and use a mobile phone.

JH: How many handsets are running LiMo and of these, which is the most well known?

MG: There are 23 handsets and the most popular in North America is the Motorola ROKR EM30. In Japan, there is amazing interest in the NTT Docomo handsets that are utilizing the mobile Internet.