Was this what Microsoft (Steve Ballmer) was growling and threatening about, when he told Asian countries: "nice little Linux OS you have here. Be a pity if someone sued you..." yesterday? Is it this mass market 3G Linux phone range for Japan, from Panasonic and NEC...?
The three new phones are for DoCoMo, on the struggling FOMA 3G network, which had failed to get hold of an appealing handset until relatively recently. It's now expanding powerfully, and looks like a good market for the future, with seven million subscribers.
Ballmer waded into the Linux dispute yesterday with the threat that "someone" might sue emerging Asian users and producers of the Linux operating system. At the time, it wasn't apparent what on earth triggered this or what it was about.
But the unveiling of the big joint Linux venture between Matsushita and NEC today shows that Microsoft is right to be anxious. The two Japanese giants say: "The main advantages of the new platform include easy integration of advanced multimedia applications and efficient use of software and human resources." And DoCoMo said: "From now on, DoCoMo expects that most or all of its new 3G handsets will run on either Linux or Symbian OS. Vendors will be able to decide which operating system they adopt."
By exploiting a variety of capabilities the Linux OS offers, "application developers can enhance sophisticated multimedia features required for 3G mobile handsets" the Matsushita announcement says. "Versatility of the Linux OS also facilitates incorporation of third-party developed advanced software. Adoption of Linux also enables design houses to focus their manpower and financial resources on designing application software."
NEC and Panasonic say they "will continue to employ the Linux-based software platform in 3G mobile phone handsets for the domestic market" where demand for more values and capabilities is accelerating.
But it is also expecting to sell into what it calls the "global market" - which will clearly include China, which has publicly committed itself to a shift to that platform for phones. "In light of adopting it into the handsets for the global market, the companies will be getting ready to license the Linux platform to handset makers and application software design houses at home and abroad," said the joint statement.
CEO Steve Ballmer caused astonishment - and hilarity - when, during a speech to Microsoft's Asian Government Leaders Forum in Singapore, he picked the odd number: 228, and said this was the number of software patents violated by Linux, and warned his audience: "Someday, for all countries that are entering the WTO (World Trade Organisation), somebody will come and look for money owing to the rights for that intellectual property."
The threat was interpreted as falling short of a warning that Microsoft would be one of those "somebodies" by most observers, but what triggered it was a mystery, until the DoCoMo announcement.
"The new software platform will be first used in three models: the NEC-made N901iC (FeliCa compatible) and N900iL; as well as the Panasonic-made P901i," says the official announcement.
The N900iL is described as "a dual-network model targeted for corporate users that runs on both FOMA and wireless LAN networks" and has already been released, earlier this month. "The release dates of the other two models are not determined," said the release.
Oddly, DoCoMo itself wasn't that concerned with the Linux angle, and has put out its own release, focusing on 3D sounds, and mobile payments mechanism in "a new line of advanced mobile phones."
The phones (according to a Reuters report) will have "stereo-quality surround sound, high-resolution digital cameras, and a special chip that allows owners to use their phones as a debit card."
This special chip seems to be Sony's FeliCa smartcard chip. Weirdly, despite its own advanced smartcard technology, Microsoft still hasn't revealed any plans to integrate this into phones. But it is, clearly, very worried about the margins on Windows Mobile, which it sells to phone and PDA makers.
"The trouble with walking into someone's restaurant and saying: 'Nice little place, would be a shame if it burned down, know what I mean?' is that the threat is empty unless you also send an enforcer around to collect," remarked one pundit. "Right now, even if the Asian companies Ballmer is blustering to feel scared, their only choice is to close down. They won't do that. They'll hang on and see how much protection money is asked, and how much muscle the protection gang can use."
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