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OpenMoko Smart Phone: Open Linux, Open Hardware, No Britney Spears

You Can't Innovate In Handcuffs

  • March 25, 2009
  • By Carla Schroder

Imagine owning a smart phone that you can hack just as freely as a PC.

OpenMoko is an embedded Linux-based mobile platform, and the Neo Freerunner is OpenMoko's slick little touch-screen smart phone that runs OpenMoko. It's not really intended for the mass-market "just make it work and don't bother me" demographic, but for power users and developers. Unlike other mobile platforms that are open in buzzword only, OpenMoko is a genuinely open hardware and software platform. I had a great conversation with Sean Moss-Pultz, the CEO of OpenMoko, who was kind enough to still be awake and coherent at 1am in his time zone.

The Eternal Hardware vs. Software Conflict

To us lowly Linux and FOSS users, any reluctance by hardware vendors to open their software drivers and accept community support seems inexplicable. We're buying the hardware, not the software, and dammit our money spends just as well as anyone else's. The more open the drivers and applications are the better for everyone-- wider market share, community support, and a better customer experience. But Mr. Moss-Pultz explained that this is not the mindset in much of the computer hardware industry. The barriers to entry are very high. The capital costs are large, the regulatory burden heavy, and the cost of failure is high. This breeds paranoia and secrecy, to the point that the hardware and software developers in the same company hardly even talk to each other.

Longtime Linux users are probably familiar with the hassles with closed, binary blobs in the drivers for wireless Ethernet network adapters. Some vendors maintain that these are necessary because of FCC requirements to prevent end users from messing with frequencies, power output, and other regulated functions. A lot of us think it's hooey, and anyway there are always ways to get around such things. But in the case of GSM cell networks it really is an issue, because the network itself is not very robust, and a single renegade phone can trash the network. Hey, that's what happens when you don't let grumpy FOSS geeks run the show, you get this silliness where the client can bring down the server.

Even so, there are no closed binary OpenMoko blobs or hidden strings attached. They follow the "release early, release often" principle. They make CAD drawings of the case available under a Creative Commons license, and schematics of the guts. All source code is available and community contributions are accepted. They're working on creating a framework that supports Python-based extensions so that writing applications for the OpenMoko is as easy as writing a Web page.

Radiohead, Not Britney Spears

Mr. Moss-Pultz explained that most mobile device vendors are all chasing the same mass-market customers. OpenMoko doesn't target the same mob as everyone else, but is going after a different, under-served niche of power users and custom resellers. He says they want to be Radiohead, not Britney Spears. This means if you have an urge to become a Linux-powered mobile device mogul, OpenMoko just might be for you. (Cathy and Earl Malmrose, owners of the independent Linux OEM shop ZaReason, are planning to do just that.)

Hacking the Freerunner

The phone itself supports everything under the sun: tri-band GSM, 802.1 1b/g, Bluetooth, AGPS and GPRS, 3-axis motion sensors, graphics acceleration, a little VGA touchscreen, a mini-audio jack and an external GPS connector, all in a cigarette pack-sized form factor, which seems to be the ideal size: not too small, not too big.

There is a lot of documentation, starting with this Getting Started with your Neo FreeRunner page. You can start with Qtopia and have a fully-functioning phone, or start with the Om 2008.8 operating system and really dig into the guts. One example of user creativity is a "I've fallen and I can't get up" feature for the Freerunner. That's a great application to put on a mobile phone; it's more stylish than those ugly panic buttons, and you can call anyone you want instead of depending on a special service.

The future does not belong to the passive button-pushers, but to the people who build things. Visit Openmoko.com for a lot more information.

Carla Schroder is the author of the Linux Cookbook and the Linux Networking Cookbook (O'Reilly Media), the upcoming "Building a Digital Sound Studio with Audacity" (NoStarch Press), a lifelong book lover, and the managing editor of LinuxPlanet and Linux Today.

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