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Archive for the ‘OpenMoko’ Category

Open wireless handsets and networks for America?

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

I have previously written about OpenMoko. It seems now that it was the drop before the deluge. Google’s Android appears to have gained good traction with Sprint and T-Mobile joining the Open Handset Alliance, with Dell rumored (update) to be planning an Android-based phone, and with Verizon expressing lukewarm support. Nokia has for some time sponsored open source handset software through Maemo.org, but this week it upped the ante with its acquisition of TrollTech. Trolltech is responsible for Qtopia, a semi-open source platform used in Linux-based phones. That makes four credible Linux-based mobile phone software platforms. Update: Make that five – the LiMo Foundation is a consortium of carriers (including NTT DoCoMo and Vodafone), phone makers (including Samsung, Motorola and LG) and others “dedicated to creating the first truly open, hardware-independent, Linux-based operating system for mobile devices.”

But a phone doesn’t have to be open-source to be an open application platform, and this category is just as vigorous, but better established. Nokia’s Symbian phones have always been open to an extent – there are over 2 million developers registered in Nokia’s developer organization, Forum Nokia. Then we have Microsoft. Microsoft claims that sales of Windows Mobile phones are set to double year-on-year, to 20 million units. Windows Mobile provides a sufficiently open application environment that applications like Skype run on it. The iPhone is not yet officially an open application environment, but there is still a healthy slate of applications from third parties for those with the stomach to take the unofficial route. This is scheduled to change in February when the open-ness goes official with the release of Apple’s SDK for the iPhone. So that’s three major open application environments for smart phones.

2008 is also the year that Wi-Fi phones will come into their own. The dam broke with the iPhone. Wi-Fi on the iPhone raises the bar for all the other smart phones, making Wi-Fi a baseline checklist item for the next generation of smart phones. Previously mobile network operators were fearful that Wi-Fi in a phone would divert traffic from their data networks. This fear led, for example, to AT&T’s removal of Wi-Fi from their version of the Nokia E61. But there is now new evidence. At last week’s IT Expo East I heard an unsubstantiated report that 60% of wireless data usage in December was by 2% of the phones: iPhones. If this is even partly true, it would demonstrate that a web-friendly phone will drive traffic on the cellular data network even when it has Wi-Fi.

Google phone alliance members

Tuesday, November 6th, 2007

The Open Handset Alliance was announced today by Google and 30 or so other companies. Until now the highest-profile open source handset operating environment was OpenMoko.

The list of participants has no real surprises in it. Nokia isn’t on the list, most likely because this project competes head on with Symbian. This may also help to explain why Sony Ericsson isn’t a supporter yet, either. But the other three of the top five handset manufacturers are members: Motorola, Samsung and LG. All of these ship Symbian-based phones, but they also ship Windows based phones, so they are already pursuing an OS-agnostic strategy. Open standards are less helpful to a market leader than to its competitors.

Of course the other leading smartphone OS vendors are also missing from the list: Microsoft, Apple, Palm and RIM.

Ebay is there because this massively benefits Skype.

Silicon vendors retain more control of their destiny when there is a competitive software community, so it makes sense that TI is aboard even though it is the market leader in cellphone chips. Intel is another chip vendor that is a member. Intel can normally be relied on to support this type of open platform initiative, and although Intel sold its handset-related businesses in 2006, its low power CPU efforts may evolve from ultra-mobile PCs down to smartphones in a few years.

Among MNOs Verizon and AT&T Mobile are notorious for their walled-garden policies, so it makes sense that they aren’t on the list, though Sprint and T-Mobile are, which is an encouraging indication.

At the launch of the iPhone Steve Jobs said that the reason there would be no SDK for the iPhone was that AT&T didn’t want their network brought down by a rogue application. I ridiculed this excuse in an Internet Telephony column. Even so, the carriers do have a valid objection to completely open platforms: their subscribers will call them for support when the phone crashes. For this reason, applications that use sensitive APIs in Symbian must be “Symbian signed.” When he announced the iPhone SDK, Steve Jobs alluded to this as a model that Apple may follow.

So Sprint’s and T-Mobile’s participation in this initiative is very interesting. Sprint’s press release says:

Unlike other wireless carriers, Sprint allows data users to freely browse the Internet outside its portal and has done so since first offering access to the Internet on its phones in 2001.

Open Internet access is actually available from all the major US MNOs other than Verizon; AT&T ships the best handset for this, the iPhone. But the iPhone doesn’t (officially) let users load whatever software they want onto the phone. Symbian and Windows-based phones generally do, and again all the major MNOs ship handsets based on these operating systems. An open source handset goes a big step further, but who benefits depends on what parts of the source code are published, and what APIs are exposed by the proprietary parts of the system. As a rule of thumb, one would think that giving developers this greater degree of control over the system will increase their scope for innovation.

OpenMoko ships Neo 1973

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

Lost in the iPhone brouhaha was a June 27th announcement about a phone that may turn out to be more revolutionary:

In our factory in China, 400 Neos are waiting… Starting July 9th, we will launch openmoko.com and start taking orders.

400 units sounds laughable compared to the iPhone’s initial run of 6 million. But it is the seed of something that could turn out to be insanely great. Steve Jobs will remember that the initial production run of the Apple I was only 220 units.

The Neo 1973 looks somewhat similar to the iPhone. It has a similar multi-touch screen that has twice the resolution (640×480) of the iPhone, though it is physically smaller.

What is revolutionary is the software business model. The iPhone isn’t even technically a Smart Phone, since it doesn’t support third party applications. The Neo 1973 is Linux-based, it is open source, and you are welcome to modify it to suit your needs.

This is huge for small, vertically oriented ISVs all over the world. While Motorola and other phone makers have already delivered Linux phones, they are notoriously secretive about the APIs, and make it almost impossible to develop tightly integrated applications. With the Neo 1973, ISVs will finally be free to customize a phone for a particular application or vertical market.

The first version shipping in early July will not support Wi-Fi. A revision in October will. This will be a breakthrough device, selling only to enthusiasts and early adopters in 2007, but gaining sales through 2008 as more applications are developed, and as hardware improvements (like faster CPU, larger screen, 802.11n, NFC, more memory, improved battery life, thinner) are made.