How a team of engineers in China persuaded Motorola to build a Linux-based mobile phone and take it global.
By Stephanie N. Mehta

(FORTUNE Magazine) – A few years ago, back when people used their cellphones merely for talking, Motorola realized it had a problem. The No. 2 maker of mobile handsets wanted to sell more sophisticated phones that could send and receive e-mail, instant messages, and other data services. But Motorola's homegrown operating system--the brains of every cellphone--wasn't flexible enough to handle all the new applications the company wanted to load onto its gadgets. So in 2000, a group of engineers at the company's research and development center in Beijing offered up a novel solution: Why not use Linux, the free operating system that was starting to develop a cult following in geek circles?

It was a crazy idea--at the time, no company had put Linux on a mobile phone--but Motorola decided to let the Beijing team run with it. China proved to be an ideal lab. The government saw Linux as a way of reducing the country's dependence on Microsoft's Windows operating system. And being far from Motorola's Schaumburg, Ill., headquarters gave the Beijing engineers more leeway to experiment with non-mainstream technologies.

The Linux gambit was far from a sure thing. The Beijing team was already working on a phone, nicknamed "Tai Chi," using Motorola's traditional operating system, and engineers and marketers initially had to steal time to work on the Linux project. Meanwhile skeptics scoffed at Motorola's scheme, arguing that Linux was too quirky for mobile devices. But the Beijing team's persistence paid off. Linux proved to be plenty hardy, plus it gave Motorola flexibility: Linux is an open-source operating system, which means any developer can write programs for Motorola's phones, giving the device maker a wide array of software choices. In 2003, Motorola and China Mobile unveiled the A760, a fully loaded mobile device with built-in e-mail, calendar, camera, and music player.

But the real payoff came a few months later, when other Motorola development teams around the globe started to embrace Linux. Today the company offers five Linux-based phones, and while it still supports other operating systems, such as the Symbian system favored by Nokia, it says Linux is at the heart of its software strategy. "If it hadn't been for the team in Beijing and their passionate commitment to Linux, this might have happened at Motorola," says Mark VandenBrink, the company's chief architect for systems software, "but it would have happened at a much later date." --Stephanie N. Mehta