On the Hot Seat with Morgan Gillis

FierceWireless editor Brian Dolan and DailyTechRag editor Mehan Jayasuriya recently interviewed Morgan Gillis, the executive director of the LiMo Foundation to discuss the ramifications of Google's Android launch, the advent of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA), the challenges Google faces on this front and whether LiMo and the OHA have considered merging.

FierceDeveloper: Google seems to be doing a lot to highlight the differences between their product and the closed systems that are out there today. What is LiMo doing to highlight the differences between its product and other closed systems out there? 

Gillis: LiMo was, as you will recall, was brought in by an industry consortium. The six founding members were DoCoMo, Vodafone, Samsung, Motorola, NEC and Panasonic. The background to the creation of LiMo was that the industry was reluctant to use the commercial platform offerings from Microsoft and Nokia on a broad scale. Very slowly Microsoft has found a niche for Windows Mobile in the enterprise segment. The industry as a whole hasn't engaged with those platforms. The reason, primarily, is one of ownership and business models. There is a general discomfort with sourcing the middleware layer of technology from a single dominant party that may have an ulterior business agenda. In simple terms, that was the reason that the founding members got together to create LiMo. They also quite deliberately selected Linux as the underlying technology because the open-source nature of that technology and also the fact that ownership was open and community-based. 

In very practical terms, LiMo is also making very strong progress-the first release of the platform R1 is virtually finished. It will be completed this calendar year-so in about seven weeks. It's thereafter available to any party to use within handsets or to pre-integrate in semiconductor products or just to build applications on top of. Also, the first handsets that use the LiMo platform technology will come into the market and into the hands of the users next month as well. This is a device called the N905 from NEC for the Japanese market. And a further device called the P905 from Panasonic, also for the Japanese market. We expect to see a range of LiMo handsets from a larger group of handset makers in the first half of 2008. 

FierceDeveloper: It seems like Google's OHA and LiMo were both formed for similar reasons and in similar ways. Would you agree? 

Gillis: The difference is that OHA has just one founding member, which is Google and the other 33 are sort of, well, I'm not sure how they're referred to but they are the second tier of members. I presume, although I haven't looked yet, that there are certain bylaws by which the OHA conducts its affairs. I expect that they have taken some of the good things from the LiMo model and applied it in a slightly different way to the OHA. 

FierceDeveloper: While Google has promoted the openness of its platform for the end user, it still seems like that will eventually be determined by the way a mobile carrier adopts the Android platform. Is that true for LiMo's platform as well? 

Gillis: Ultimately, the openness of the handset is determined by the operator. Google has set up their stall where they are heavily promoting openness, and I'm sure they do really mean openness in terms of how the handset is offered to the user, but whether that's achieved or not is I'm sure dependent on the marketing policy of the carrier concerned. If you buy a handset in Europe you will find the handset can be a much more open handset than North American handsets typically are and you can download applications and program the handset yourself. I do believe this is central to Google's philosophy because it's really propelled their success on the desktop, but the success that Google achieved on the desktop was really achieved without disturbing the PC industry status quo because of the very open nature of the Internet. Google was able to make itself available to consumers without any intermediary. Progressively, Google, found very clever ways to develop deeper and more commercial ways to connect with users, but without having to go through the PC industry at all really. 

The mobile world, of course, is different. It's more controlled. It's controlled in the sense of the networks and the handsets as well because the operators like to have some control over the degree of openness that's present on the handset. So Google's approach here has to be one of working with and through the mobile industry, rather than going directly to mobile consumers. It's for that reason that I wasn't surprised at all to see that Google was assembling an industry consortium. I thought it was very understandable that last week the message that they really wanted to get across, first and foremost, was that they were engaging with the mobile industry rather than attempting to take over the industry or disintermediate the industry. 

FierceDeveloper: Is LiMo going to offer an open SDK like Google's? 

Gillis: Well, LiMo's focus is different from Google's. We are focused exclusively on the middleware, so we explicitly do not address the user experience layer as part of the LiMo mission. That's quite deliberate. Philosophically, we believe that the value line on handsets has shifted up significantly now. Most of the value now lies in the user experience layer and LiMo's role is to create the middleware. Our mission is to catalyze next generation user experiences of all kinds, but not to try to produce those experiences from within LiMo. We feel that this is a very natural way to conduct our affairs. It means we can focus totally on one part of the system and not get into conflict with our partners. 

FierceDeveloper: Are the OHA and LiMo competitive with each other in any sense? 

Gillis: Well, no, I think that there are some very substantial points of alignment and the two initiatives are very naturally complementary to each other. As you, of course, have seen a number of the leading drivers behind LiMo are also in the OHA camp and are quite comfortable in both camps, actually. As I said, LiMo is middleware, while Google's primary focus is the user experience. They clearly have some middleware components, but strategically they are going to focus on the JAVA implementation and the JAVA SDK that goes with it. I doubt that Google has any ambitions at all to be the middleware driver for the whole mobile industry. That's not the endeavor that really plays to their core competence. It's all not something that other big players like Nokia or Microsoft have been successful with at all. 

FierceDeveloper: What challenges does Google face with its Android launch? 

Gillis: Their biggest challenge is engagement with the industry. It's not that the industry is disinclined to engage with Google-it's clearly the opposite: they've got a very impressive list of names onboard. But the practical and the commercial and contractual engagement is something that Google will have to obviously be very thoughtful about. Essentially what they are doing here is to roll out a set of new business models which they're taking to market through their existing value system. They have to marry up with a whole spectrum of business models and business plans and business ambitions that already exist within the industry--some of the operators don't really have ambitions to deliver the mobile Internet to consumers themselves and they are probably quite excited about Google's arrival. Others, of course, have very clear objectives to deliver the mobile Internet experience to their customers without necessarily working in concert with a large partner like Google. It's a very complicated value system, they have to work through operators they have to engage handset makers and introduce new business models throughout. 

At the same time, they have to engage an army of developers to innovate, create and imagine the next generation of mobile Internet experiences. I think that the main area of challenge is engaging the mobile industry in a way that allows them to get access to mobile consumers and get traction with their platform as quickly as possible. The success of any platform really depends on the pace of the platform getting picked up. They will have a strong start but they really need to augment their existing B2C play with a compelling B2B play now to really address the entire mobile market. 

FierceDeveloper: Given the complementary missions of LiMo and the OHA, would LiMo consider joining forces with the OHA? 

Gillis: We see convergence, practical convergence between OHA and LiMo, as a very plausible prospect and we are extremely open to that. We see that as something that would be very natural and there's already a commonality in industry backing. There aren't particular plans at the moment but I could see that happening. These key LiMo members are very open and comfortable about now being involved in OHA. They see Google as a fantastic consumer play and they see LiMo as an industry play within the mobile industry. For those parties, the two fit together extremely well. People would only become uncomfortable if Google began to play outside of its core strengths and to become the provider of a middleware platform, which wouldn't be appropriate because Google has no record of delivering mobile handset platforms. That takes a very long time to get right. The LiMo partners have been at it for a very long time. It took Nokia's Series 60 to take about five years to become mainstream within Nokia. Google will have some very punchy objectives to engage mobile consumers directly, and it would slow them down considerably if, in addition to addressing the consumer, they attempted to create their own handset platform. It wouldn't make sense at all.