Open Source development has brought the world a stable operating system, reliable web server and thousands of free and very useful programs and scripts. Will it bring us the next great phone?
Last July 9, OpenMoko started selling from their website the Neo 1973 phone, which runs the company’s eponymous open source mobile software package. This is an early version, geared more toward developers and hackers.
OpenMoko is an open source operating system for mobile phones. It is built on the Linux kernel and various other open source software packages. It even has a software package management system that will allow users to easily manage, install, and remove applications in their phones.
I am an open source advocate so I may be a touch too optimistic about the project. But it’s easy to feel that way. You only have to use software such as Firefox, web content management systems such as WordPress and Drupal, or a Linux desktop (get Ubuntu!) to know that open source is a very viable development framework.
There is no need to list the merits of open source development as these are more than amply covered in a lot of websites.
But what makes the project hold such promise is that unlike in PCs where most people have become dependent on popular closed-source applications, in mobile phones there are no such dependencies.
A lot of people want to use or try using Linux as a desktop but are held back because they can’t live without Photoshop (although you can install Photoshop in Linux using Wine) or the latest Microsoft Office Suite or any other proprietary software.
But in cell phones, there aren’t dominant applications that can hold back adoption of an open source phone. Just as long as it does the job of making calls, managing contacts, sending SMS and MMS messages, and connecting to the mobile Internet, people will use it. Of course there are brand loyalties but this aren’t as sticky as operating system dependency.
The OpenMoko community wants the software to run on a wide assortment of hardware. Right now, only the Neo 1973 has full support for the software. But it does run on Treo 650, Palm TX, and Motorola E680i albeit with some problems.
The Neo 1973 has a 2.8″ TFT touchscreen that is usable with your fingers or a stylus. The phone is quad-band and is GPRS capable. The next version of the phone will have Wi-Fi. It would be great if a future model will have DVB-H support so that users can view mobile TV on it.
True to its open source roots, OpenMoko encourages tinkering with the product. It said in its website:
“Like Make Magazine we believe “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”. Others try their best to lock us out of the devices we buy, but, Neo’s are built for you to open. You can take the casing apart and get at the PCB. Opt for the Neo Advanced kit and we’ll give you a special screwdriver (the Neo cracker) and plastic guitar pick to make opening this device even easier. Go ahead, open your Neo. Make our day.”
The product might be a great choice for telcos. If you’re from the Philippines, do you still remember the Smart Amazing Phone? When I first heard of it, my initial impression was that the choice of name was risky. No phone, no matter how advanced, stays “amazing” for more than a few months. Such is the rapid pace of advances in the sector. It’s just like naming your son “President” or “Premier” and he ends up a barangay captain (community leader).
A telecommunications company can release OpenMoko powered phones, once the project matures, and feel confident that features will continually be added by the project’s community of developers and users.
The first versions of the phone may not win users away from Nokia, Sony Ericsson, or Samsung or Apple’s iPhone but give it a year or two and it will start getting converts.
So will open source bring us the next great phone? This Sony Ericsson fan boy is betting it will.
For more videos about the phone, go to this YouTube page.
Max is a journalist and blogger based in Cebu. He has written and edited for such publications as The Freeman, The Independent Post, Today, Sun.Star Cebu, Cebu Daily News, Philstar Life, and Rappler.
He is also a mobile app and web developer and co-founded InnoPub Media with his wife Marlen.
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