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A look through the history of Linux-based mobile platforms.
Linux for mobile: A visual history
The world of smartphone operating systems is exciting – and Linux-based systems are absolutely dominating that market. But it wasn't always that way. Let's take a look back over the history of Linux on mobile devices (from PDAs to cellphones). And, because it's fun, let's see lots of screenshots of what each system looked like along the way.
Remember the iPAQ, the PDA released by Compaq back in 2000? Well, that little device was cool, but not everyone was happy with the OS it was running. Enter Familiar Linux. The first version (0.1... Familiar never actually hit 1.0, despite a seven-year run ending with version 0.8.4 in 2007) was released in May of 2000, and commonly ran the GNOME Palmtop Environment.
Back in December of 2001, Sharp released the Zaurus SL-5000D – the first device in its PDA line that shipped with Linux. Powered by the Qtopia environment, a 206 MHz ARM processor, 32MB of RAM and a gorgeous color screen – and featuring a trackball and a physical thumb keyboard – this little beauty was the envy of many nerds. The OpenZaurus project started in order to keep it up to date and add new features that developers and nerds desired.
In November 2005, Nokia released the N770 handheld tablet. And, shipping with it, was Maemo, a Debian- and GNOME-based Linux distribution focused entirely mobile devices using the Hildon Desktop environment. This was a full-featured Debian desktop right in the palm of your hand. Even now, this little beauty still brings a tear to my eye. Over the years, this system would be updated and fancied up quite a lot. Why Nokia opted to ditch this in favor of Windows Phone still causes me to scratch my head.
What do you do when you have multiple Linux distributions, all with similar goals and structure, focused on mobile and embedded uses? Merge them and create Ångström! This distro, being the successor to Open Zaurus (and others), was first released back in April of 2007 and hasn't really been updated much in the last few years – but runs on an astounding array of consumer hardware, including the OpenPandora handheld gaming console.
Building on the foundation of Ångström, the Openmoko team set out to build a completely Free (and GPL licensed) smartphone system in 2007. And they succeeded... in a way. Their phone, the Neo FreeRunner, shipped in July of 2008. Everything in this beast was standard Linux kit – GTK, Qt and X.org. Unfortunately, the project never gained the critical mass necessary and ceased major development in mid-2009.
October 2008 - Android was born (and this is what it looked like back then). It is now the most dominant mobile platform on the planet – accounting for over 70% of all smartphone sales in the first quarter of 2013. From zero to 70% in less than five years is not too shabby. Of course, you could make a good case that Android isn't really Linux. Sure, it uses the Linux kernel, but Android is more of a custom Java-based environment with very few similarities to other Linux desktop and mobile distributions. That said... we'll still count it as a win.
When one thinks of “Desktop Linux,” one of the first three letters to come to mind, for many, is KDE. Pasma Active, first shipped in October of 2011, is KDE's mobile version of the long-popular desktop environment. Built on Qt (like Qtopia before it), Plasma Active is…gorgeous, and distinctly KDE in style. At present, there are no devices currently shipping with Plasma Active installed by default, though it is installable on existing tablets, such as the Nexus 7.
Tizen, first appearing in January of 2012, is a complicated beast. Originally, this system shared a lot in common with WebOS (Linux Kernel, Web-based apps running in WebKit), which certainly makes it easy for web-devs to bring their apps to Tizen. As of Tizen 2, some of the components are not released under an Open Source license. And Samsung, a driving force behind Tizen (along with Intel), has transitioned Tizen to be its Bada operating system on top of a Linux Kernel. And, so far, no shipping devices (or announcements of future shipping devices) with Tizen pre-installed. Like I said. Complicated.
In August 2012, Sailfish OS joined the mobile Linux party. It was built on top of Mer (which was originally a fork of Maemo... and is now a fork of MeeGo...which was a sort of spiritual successor, for some, of Maemo) and relies heavily on Qt and HTML5. No devices on the market currently support Sailfish, but Jolla (the company behind Sailfish) has stated that its first phone running the OS will be available by the end of 2013.
Canonical threw its hat into the ring with the first preview release of Ubuntu Touch in February 2013. Based heavily on the Ubuntu desktop platform, Ubuntu Touch utilizes the Unity user interface and heavily leverages Qt and QML for application development. You might be noticing a trend... HTML5 and Qt. Qt and HTML5. Linux-based mobile platforms are tending towards those technologies in droves, which is certainly nice for the software developers looking to support them all.
That brings us to the present. At the moment, Linux dominates the mobile landscape, without even the slightest doubt, thanks to the success of the Android platform. And, with several new Linux-based systems jumping into the mobile world, the next decade could be just as crazy and exciting as the last one.