The race is on: A consortium of 32 companies has joined a classic battle for primacy with their demonstration of mobile phones to compete with devices that will run Google Inc.'s fledgling Android operating system.
The LiMo Foundation — which includes such software companies as McAfee Corp. and Purple Labs and telecommunications giants such as Samsung — showed off 18 handsets Wednesday at the World Mobile Conference in Barcelona. Some of the devices are ready for market.
Just two days earlier, also in Barcelona, chip makers Texas Instruments Inc. and Qualcomm Inc. began demonstrating prototypes of handsets based on Android — for which no one offered a launch date.
The promise of both operating systems is that — because they are based on open-source software — they will allow developers to quickly and freely add new applications. Anyone hoping to create new applications for competing proprietary programs from Microsoft Corp., Palm Inc., Research in Motion Ltd. or Nokia Corp.'s Symbian must pay licensing fees.
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That openness could speed the drive to integrate the Internet into mobile phones. It's already drawing numerous handset manufacturers, mobile operators, software companies to chip makers.
The LiMo Foundation, which draws its name from Linux and mobile phones, was launched last February in an effort to build a mobile phone platform that would allow more devices to work together. Google also began working on Android last year with industry partners, in the Open Hand Alliance.
The initiatives overlap in many ways, which is reflected in the number of companies participating in both, including LG Electronics, Motorola and Samsung as well as chipmaker Texas Instruments. In all, LiMo has 32 members to Open Hand's 34. And the numbers in both are growing.
So far, however, there are no signs they will pool their efforts.
"These companies are united in a deep philosophical way around an operating system, with a group of industry leaders who are sharing technology to create a new operating system for handsets," Morgan Gillis, executive director of the LiMo Foundation, said of that collaborative. "LiMo is real technology making a real platform that goes straight to handsets."
A key difference between LiMo and Android is that Google is presenting Android to its partners as a completed operating system, whereas the partners in LiMo have incorporated components from the various member companies and are finishing it together, said John Rizzo, a LiMo board member who is vice president for research and development strategy for the U.S. branch of Japan's Aplix Corp.
"The platform is made up of existing, proven components," Rizzo said. "Part of the effort is to provide a cost-effective platform for everyone involved."
The LiMo-equipped handsets shown Wednesday in Barcelona include models from Motorola Inc., NEC Corp., Panasonic Mobile Communications and Samsung. Each contains just some pieces of the still-evolving platform.
Consultant John Strand of Strand Consulting in Copenhagen, Denmark, was skeptical that either initiative would have much impact on the mobile market because primacy depends on getting onto a majority of devices, which is tough in a fragmented market.
A formidable obstacle looms in the form of Nokia, which controls 40 percent of the handset market and relies on Symbian, a proprietary operating system it partially owns.
"LiMo is just a group of people trying to create an alternative to Symbian and Microsoft. But Microsoft gets out to more phones and has a bigger development community," said Strand.
Antivirus software maker McAfee is eager to be on the ground floor of an operating system with LiMo, never having done that with a computer platform.
"This is a unique opportunity for us to be involved from day one. We've been half a step behind the bad guys, now we can be half a step ahead," said Victor Kouznetsov, senior vice president for McAfee's mobile security solutions.
Data protection is increasingly important on mobile phones as Internet applications become more prominent, and the trend has already taken off in Asia, Kouznetsov said.
Martin Cooper, the CEO of wireless company ArrayComm Inc. and an early developer of mobile phone technology, agreed that collaboratives will help developers create more new applications. But he said barriers remain to the digital revolution — chiefly the cost of data transmission.
"Digital was supposed to change our lives. It hasn't happened yet," Cooper said. "I'm here to say that the revolution has started. It will take a long time. Believe it or not, revolution takes about a generation. This generation has started now."