Android vs. LiMo: What’s the difference?

With LiMo’s recent announcement that Verizon had hopped onto their Board of Directors, things are starting to heat up between the LiMo platform and Google’s competing product, Android. Both are open-source Linux-based platforms, and both are aiming to rock the handset market sometime in the next year or so.

LiMo is Linux-based. Android is Linux-based. But they’re far from the same. Below, I’ll try to explain some of the key differences without going too heavy on the tech jargon. (Fiiine. It gets a bit heavy for a paragraph or two. But I’ll avoid it where possible.)

1) Backers/Funding

LiMo: The LiMo platform is backed by the LiMo Foundation, which was founded by Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, Panasonic, Samsung, and Vodafone, and has since added 34 other members to the list. In membership fees alone ($400k a year for each of the 9 “Core” members, and $40k a year for each of the 25 “Associate” members) , the foundation has raised at least 4.6 million before adding in whatever funds the founding members pitched in at the start.

Android: Android is backed by the Open Handset Alliance (OHA). OHA has 33 founding members besides Google, including 3 of the LiMo Foundation’s 7 founders (namely Samsung, Motorola, and NTT DoCoMo). No word on Android’s budget so far. While the way Google flashes cash with things like the $10 Million Dollar Android Developer Challenge doesn’t absolutely prove that their budget is larger, it certainly implies it.

In other words: Both platforms have massive companies as partners, and presumably a good amount of money behind them. Android is largely touted as a Google project, where LiMo isn’t really pushed as being under the wing of a single company.

2) Dev Status

LiMo: LiMo was announced in January of 2007, the first handsets hit in early 2008, the API (Application Program Interface, a set of pre-defined routines for developers to utilize) is available now , and their software development kit (programming tools and documentation for developing and testing applications) is set to release in the second half of 2008.

Android: Android was announced on November 5th of 2007, and an early version of their SDK was released within a week. The first Android handsets are planned for the end of 2008.

In other words: LiMo has devices on the market and an API available, but no SDK. Android isn’t available on any handsets yet, but already has an SDK in the hands of developers. Before anyone has really began working on LiMo applications, we’re already seeing Android apps being demoed.

3) Applications

LiMo: LiMo applications can be written in C/C++, allowing them to run natively.

Android: Android applications are written in Java, so all applications will be running in a Virtual Machine. Virtual Machines mean CPU overhead, meaning applications that may not be as efficient as if they were running native. However, it almost absolutely guarantees a standard application environment across Android devices.

In other words: LiMo applications are running in a language the operating system (OS) inherently understands, while Android applications are running in a virtual environment on top of the operating system. More importantly – you can write a Java virtual machine in C or C++, so while it could be possible to run Android applications on LiMo be it someone wrote a compatible virtual machine, it is far less likely to see LiMo’s C/C++ applications somehow emulated in Java. I was wrong – Android apps aren’t running in a Java VM, they’re running in a Dalvik VM. As such, portability in either direction is unlikely.

4) Handsets/Carriers

LiMo: There are a number of LiMo based handsets on the market, from Panasonic, NEC, Motorola, Purple Labs, LG, or Aplix. Current carrier partners are Vodafone and NTT DoCoMo, and Verizon has announced plans to offer LiMo devices in 2009.

Android: HTC has mentioned that they’re working on at least 2-3 Android handsets for 2008, and LG is working on at least one for 2009. The other handset manufacturers registered as Open Handset Alliance members are Motorola and Samsung. Current carrier partners are Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, China Mobile, Telefonica and Telecom Italia.

5) Hype

LiMo: Fairly low. There just isn’t much chatter about LiMo, besides articles summarizing press releases. I couldn’t find any LiMo enthusiasts, or communities focused around LiMo devices.

Android: High, largely because of Google’s involvement and all the speculation that went on before it was announced. I found a number of opinion articles on Android, and a handful of budding fan forums.

6) Design Aspects

LiMo: Middleware only, meaning LiMo only handles things that are tucked below what the user actually sees. User experience items, such as the interface, are the responsibility of those developing the device.

Android: Android is a full software stack, meaning it consists of an operating system, middleware, user interface, and applications. Android will have a standard user interface, but as it is open source, the carrier/manufacture, and potentially the end user, are free to change it.

In other words: LiMo is only part of the software package that goes on a device, while Android is pretty much the whole package. If those developing the device are looking to start with a complete software solution, they’d probably go with Android. If they’re looking to write their user experience layer from scratch, they’d go with LiMo.

So who will win?

That’s a hard question to answer, as they both offer a totally different solution. Google offers a complete solution, which can be remolded from the top down. LiMo’s solution provides a foundation, on which developers can build the user experience from the ground up.

In terms of adoption, I’m willing to bet Android will reign victorious in the end. The crowds are already buzzing about it, and a number of developers are already cracking out code for it. Thanks to Google’s name being beside it at all times, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a mobile operating system discussed amongst my non-gadget-obsessed friends (Even though it was just another “OMG! Is this going to be better than what’s on the iPhone?!?!” conversation,) and it hasn’t even hit the market yet.