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Can Tizen succeed where Meego, Maemo, and Moblin have fizzled?

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The world of mobile operating systems is nothing if not turbulent, and Thursday brought us yet another unexpected twist: Chipmaking giant Intel announced it is pulling the plug on the MeeGo operating system and placing its bets on a whole new open-sourced, Linux-based mobile operating system project dubbed Tizen. However, as with MeeGo, Intel isn’t going it alone with Tizen. It has partnered with the both the Linux Foundation and LiMo Foundation, and device makers like Samsung have already expressed interest in the platform.

With Google’s “free and open” Android already the world’s top smartphone platform, does the world need another Linux-based mobile operating system? How could Tizen succeed where other systems have failed to get off the ground (Moblin and Maemo), flamed out (MeeGo), or succeeded only as niche products (LiMo). What can Tizen bring to the table that others cannot?

What is Tizen?

At its heart, Tizen will be an open-source, Linux-based mobile operating system that aims to support several types of devices, ranging from smartphones and media tablets to netbooks, in-vehicle information systems, and smart TVs. Gosh, that sounds like MeeGo! However, rather than focusing on delivering a native application platform, Tizen will primarily rely on developers creating applications with HTML5 and other Web technologies. Tizen APIs will also let those apps tap into things like cameras, media, motion sensors, messaging, and social networking.

Aside from a “relatively small percentage of apps” that will be native, the director of Intel’s Open Source Technology Center, Imad Sousou, sees APIs for HTML5 apps as critical. “Shifting to HTML5 doesn’t just mean slapping a Web runtime on an existing Linux, even one aimed at mobile, as MeeGo has been. Emphasizing HTML5 means that APIs not visible to HTML5 programmers need not be as rigid, and can evolve with platform technology and can vary by market segment.” That’s wishy-washy, but it means developers of HTML5-based apps for Tizen devices won’t have to turn to native development tools to get at device-specific functionality.

Tizen promises to make the transition for MeeGo developers as smooth as possible, and promises that the Tizen software stack will be completely open, from the core operating system all the way up through applications and polished UI. Although not many details of Tizen development have been nailed down, it appears MeeGo developers will be able to work on Tizen using the Qt application framework, although the emphasis going forward will be on developing HTML5 apps.

Tizen expects to get its first release out the door with an SDK in the first quarter of 2012. In theory, the first devices could start appearing in the second quarter of 2012, but the end of 2012 is probably a more realistic timeframe.

Where did Tizen come from?

The simplest answer is that Tizen will be a direct descendent of MeeGo, the open-source Linux operating system that was a collaboration between Nokia and Intel. You can see the problem right there: In February, Nokia announced it was ditching both MeeGo and its own Symbian platform and betting on Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. That essentially left Intel holding the bag on MeeGo. Intel has been trying to break into the mobile device world for years, and partnering with Nokia — the world’s largest mobile device maker — seemed like a solid move. Then Nokia walked away, with the ironic upshot being that the Nokia N9, its first and last MeeGo device, hit the streets the same day its operating system got cancelled.

MeeGo itself was formally born in 2010 from a combination of Intel’s first effort at a mobile platform, Moblin, combined with Nokia’s Maemo. The two companies had been working together since 2009: Intel’s Moblin was to form the core operating system, while Maemo brought native application development tools and the Qt development framework to the party.

Nokia-N9Moblin and MeeGo represent one half of the double-whammy that has so far kept Intel from being a major player in the mobile world. Intel may be a formidable chipmaker, but the company is not known for its software development. Virtually all the company’s software offerings are the result of acquisitions, rather than in-house development, so Intel needed to look outside its walls for a mobile software platform. The first effort was Moblin, based on Linux. To bring in an interface, apps, and developers, Intel turned to Maemo.

But, all that fails without hardware, and that’s the other half of the double whammy. Despite years of efforts Intel has yet to launch viable competitors to ARM-based processors for mobile devices. (Intel says they’re imminent with new Atoms…but it has been saying similar things forever.) Even the Nokia N9 doesn’t run an Intel processor: It’s got a 1GHz OMAP chip from Texas Instruments at its heart. So MeeGo found itself in the awkward position of being a software platform without mobile devices…and then having the maker of its software environment walk away.

Tizen is MeeGo based on that reality: Nokia is out of the picture, so the Qt development environment is being de-emphasized in favor of non-proprietary HTML5 technologies. Intel still doesn’t have an in-house operating system for mobile devices, so it’s still looking to Linux and the open-source community. At heart, Tizen is MeeGo without Maemo, or Moblin reborn, with an HTML5 emphasis.

Why Tizen could matter

The mobile world has shifted radically since the days of Moblin, and the current situation could create a significant opportunity for Tizen—particularly if some of high-stakes patent litigation gets even nastier.

There’s already a world-leading Linux-based mobile operating system out there: Android. Android is powering everything from smartphones to tablets to (soon) TVs, and Intel has just announced a high-profile pact with Google to optimize Android’s performance for Intel’s Atom processor family. Android is touted as “free and open,” meaning any manufacturer can freely put Android on any device they like without paying a cent. Sounds ideal for Intel, right?

Yes and no. On the openness front, Google has been roundly criticized for giving preferential treatment to specific makers and carriers (particularly Motorola and Verizon), and “using compatibility as a club” to keep handset makers and developers in line. Google has also delayed release of source code (particularly for Android 3.0), clamped down on Android customization, and required developers looking at variants on Android to let Google review their changes. And Google is attempting to acquire Motorola Mobility: If the deal goes through, that means handset makers will be competing against Google’s own in-house smartphone, tablet, and device maker.

And then there’s the Microsoft tax: Without suing Google, Microsoft has been claiming that Android infringes on Microsoft intellectual property, and has been going around to Android device makers demanding royalties on Android devices they sell in exchange for immunity from any future litigation… you know, when and if they get around to it. Often these deals get wrapped up in broader patent exchange agreements, but so far HTC, Acer, ViewSonic, Wistron, Onkyo, Velocity Micro, Itronix, and now Samsung are on board. Some of these agreements extend to Google’s Chrome browser, as well. Device makers may not be directly paying Google to bring Android devices to market, but a growing number of them — including some of the largest — are paying Microsoft.

Also in the mix: the multi-billion-dollar lawsuit Oracle is pursuing against Google for allegedly infringing on Java technology in Android, and Apple’s myriad suits against Android handset makers. Those suits target HTC, Motorola, and Samsung, with the HTC actions in particular looking like a proxy for suing Google directly.

So Android’s “free and open” universe has some dark clouds on the horizon.

Intel is undoubtedly thrilled to be working with Google on a version of Android optimized for Intel processors, but the company has learned a thing or two about putting all its eggs in one basket. Having Tizen ramping up in the background is a good way to hedge bets in case litigation eventually makes the Android ecosystem less appealing.

Other players in the Android ecosystem are likely performing the same calculus: Samsung announced its support for Tizen the same day it announced it was knuckling under to Microsoft’s Android tax—under the guise of a broader collaboration and patent exchange agreement, of course. For Samsung, Tizen represents a third bet: The company already has its own alternative smartphone platform in Bada, which while unknown in the United States is seeing success in international markets. Reports have computer makers like Acer and Asus expressing interest in Tizen. Remember, it doesn’t have to be limited to smartphones, and can also target netbooks and home media devices.

Nonetheless, Tizen has a difficult path before it. The number of mobile operating system successfully competing against Android and Apple’s iOS can be counted on the thumbs of one foot. Although industry watchers expect Windows Phone will eventually claw its way into third place behind iOS and Android (thanks in part to eventual adoption by enterprise clients), RIM has been hemorrhaging marketshare (and its vaunted QNX-based PlayBook tablet has been a dud), Hewlett-Packard pulled the plug on webOS almost immediately after introducing the TouchPad, and Symbian is dead as a smartphone platform (although it will linger for some time in international markets). And right now, Tizen has no software, no SDK, no apps, and no hardware.

Oh, and Nokia’s all-or-nothing bet on Windows Mobile? Perhaps not so all-or-nothing. Reports in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere have the company working on its own Linux-based mobile operating system dubbed “Meltimi,” aimed at the core of Nokia’s current market: entry-level feature phones. Nokia hasn’t confirmed Meltimi, but the report immediately sparks speculation about the rebirth of Maemo, and whether Meltemi might be able to swing disgruntled MeeGo developers — particularly those with Qt expertise — back to Nokia.

At least Tizen lives in interesting times.

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