Is Microsoft taking steps towards mobile open source?

Microsoft has pleased the cult following that still loves the Danger Sidekick smartphone it acquired last year by releasing a new model, the LX, rather than letting the hardware platform die quietly, or giving it a Windows Mobile revamp.

Since Microsoft has not chosen to put WinMo on the only phone hardware it actually owns – despite persistent rumors that it plans to create new reference platforms of its own for this market – there could be another agenda, the development of greater knowledge of open source in mobile devices.

This might not be an approach Microsoft would choose, but it cannot ignore the rise of open source in mobile, given the emergence of platforms like Android and the newly open Symbian.

Sidekick broke new ground when it emerged and though many of its innovations (like app stores) have been superseded by Apple, Nokia and others. Now its main value to Microsoft seems to be to gain greater intelligence about the cellphone experience and how to improve it.

Though the LX will generate miniscule revenues by MS' standards, insiders said it would enable the software giant to "learn more about user behaviour and uptake of certain smartphone technologies". Perhaps it is looking to feed that intelligence into new projects based around WinMo 7.

These could include the development of new form factors with LG; the much rumored (and possibly now cancelled) 'Pink' project; or the equally oft-rumored 'Zune phone'.

But as yet, the Sidekick retains its own OS. The question of whether Microsoft will run WinMo or Windows CE on the product to get even better feedback on users' behaviour and acceptance remains open.

The company is likely to be wanting intelligence in another area ¬– open source operating systems. LX will run open source NetBSD OS, and Microsoft was recently advertising for people with NetBSD skills to help launch the new Sidekick, pointed out PCWorld. Perhaps a tiny step towards open source acceptance for the Windows giant?

Other majors have already taken the approach of experimenting with open source platforms on non-core device lines, to tap into developer and user preferences, and keep their options open in future. Nokia is an obvious example with its Linux range of internet tablets, which use a Maemo-oriented system.

The tablets are successful products, but small fry compared to the range of Symbian smartphones, but they are allowing Nokia to gain expertise and market influence in Linux, to boost Maemo as a counterweight to Google's Linux choices, and in future it may well make its software, such as Series 60, cross-platform, harnessing both Maemo and Symbian (a move prefigured by the acquisition of the Trolltech cross-OS development system).

Rethink Wireless