Monday, February 25, 2008

Open Source Revolution: Episode N - Attack of the Phones

5 comments
Once upon a time in a galaxy far far away called the Milky Way, there were phones! Some of the creatures there, were smitten by the iPhone or Nokia N Series or so called smart phones which are jam packed with features. And yet for some of us the whole requirement would be a Nokia 1100 or a Motorola F3 (or whatever brick which can make phone calls). Whatever the cause maybe, you should be well aware that the arena of mobile phones is expanding it's horizons like a frenzy. And being a FOSS geek, I can't help feeling optimistic about the current state of the art.

This far the mobile phone has been a gadget we buy from a vendor, use it as it is, not allowed to meddle with, preloaded with proprietary software (which usually is ugly literally and metaphorically) and so on. In regions like US, EU and so most of the phones come bound to an operator (so called locked phoned). Fortunately in Sri Lanka it has not been that ugly where we buy unlocked phones then put a SIM from any GSM operator available here. So freedom of the phone may seem not so affected to some people. But we all know even in the current light of the things, we are bound to the gadgets (hardware) and pre-loaded software.

On hardware side we are we have been using custom designs from OEMs which are relabeled by phone vendors and some times even re-branded by operators. These hardware platforms are usually not available to the public and have never been based on technological commodities. Software is even worse. While some use custom built software, smart phone and PDA, etc. market has been dominated by few closed box, secret things like Symbian, Windows Mobile and Palm. May be that can be a reason why I've always been disappointed by the feature/price ratio of mobile phones. You may want to disagree, but I feel as usual, a limited number of players in the game can kill innovation and improvement. How many areas we have seen this happen? Isn't this one of the most compelling reasons why people accepted Open Source movement with open arms, that they we tired of the cartel?

However, in recent years we've seen a developing trends in Open Source software based, namely Linux based phones. Some Asian vendors and even some bigger names like Motorola started using Linux on mobile phones. As the time moved on we could the that it was beneficial in maby aspects, ...just like the Software industry. This is the backdrop where OEMs start making 3G and even 3.5G Linux phones, big firms making consortium to get involved with the FOSS revolution in mobile phones. This is the also the backdrop where Google, who without a doubt a key innovator on the Net, made an somewhat unexpected move. People expects energetic moves from Google and they have indeed skyrocketed technologies before. For the people who's been staying underground at least for the past 5 years, just ask someone about Web Search, Gmail, Ajax, Blogs. Sure they didn't create any of those but they did elevated them in to heights which are now the measuring points.

After the success of Apples iPhone there was a rumor floating about a gPhone from Google. When people was anticipating a phone Google presented a platform: Android. Android is a mobile phone platform initiated by Google and supported by Open Handset Alliance. OHA consists of major names in the industry including Intel, NTT, HTT, Motorola, LG, Samsung, eBay, Marvell, Synaptics, Wind River, etc. Android is yet come out with something solid, but an SDK is out and people are already hacking. Phones based one Android are expected within 2008 from major vendors. However at this stage applications are limited to Java platform (not standard Java ME or SE) and access to low level device APIs are not available. There are some few other catches too. But I for one, welcome our new mobile platform :) and guess we can expect interesting things from Android. However my main expectation and main focus/inspiration of this post is not Android, but OpenMoko.

Although OpenMoko may sound like a funny name, it's catchy. Admit it, and the slogan is also a Matrix kind of "Free Your Phone". Without just working on words let me show you a couple of pictures. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Neo 1973 (and Neo FreeRunner which is not in the pictures).

Well, for some of you, especially for FOSS geeks, this is no news at all. We've been expecting this great gadget for quite some time.

Some might go far enough even to say that it looks awfully similar to an iPhone. That is where I step in again to enlighten you, saying that it is awfully vice-versa.

This cool thing you see in the pictures is called Neo 1973 which is named after the year of mobile phone invention. Neo 1973 which was a developer oriented device is sold out in order to pave the way to it's spiritual successor Neo FreeRunner which I'm told by their sales team, will be available in mid April.

Neo device is the first available mobile phone using the OpenMoko platform. OpenMoko platform is quite similar to Android in it's aims, but is older and much much more open than Android. OpenMoko based phones, namely Neo devices are based on more commodity hardware. Even the CAD drawings for the Neo 1973 is open and CAD drawing for the FreeRunner is also expected.


Here's the hardware spec for the current (FreeRunner) device:
(Only 2.5G is supported for now, will be upgraded to 3G in future)
  • 120.7 x 62 x 18.5mm factor
  • 184g weight (unconfirmed yet)
  • 2.8" 640 x 480 VGA Color TFT LCD
  • Samsung 2442 SoC (400 MHz)
  • SMedia 3362 3D Graphics Accelerator
  • 128MB RAM
  • 256MB Flash
  • 2x 3D Accelerometers (wow, cool)
  • Tri-Band GPRS/GSM - 900 (850 for N. America)/1800/1900 MHz
  • WiFi 802.11b/g
  • Bluetooth 2.0 EDR
  • AGPS (Assisted GPS) receiver
  • USB 1.1
  • Micro CD slot
  • 2.5mm audio jack
  • Replaceable 1200mAh battery
  • Touchscreen (finger/stylus)
FreeeRunner (which will look strikingly similar to Neo 1973 in look) is operated with a full touch interface, both finger and stylus, supports motion sensing and gesture based operations (sweet, that's what accelerometers do). Neo devices also ship with quite a few goodies like a headset, pouch, lanyard, micro SD card, USB connector cables and an uber cool stylus which is also a pen/laser pointer/flash light (with extra batteries). Now isn't that appealing or what?

Neo FreeRunner prices are yet to be unveiled. Neo 1973 was sold at $399. The software platform is under development. In April, hopefully FreeRunner will make it to the hands of mobile developers, FOSS lovers, enthusiasts, etc. Then given the development and testing exposure, it will be ready for prime time. But I guess I'm looking forward to the April release rather than wait for the public release. :)

As going with the FOSS model, the complete stack of software, the OpenMoko software stack is 100% Open Source. Yes, not only the open API fantasy or the FOSS userland, but the whole thing including the OS (kernel, etc.), Java VM, etc. is Open Source. You are not hindered by a vendors SDK or an API. You are given the whole freedom to to whatever you like with it. Now that's what I call freedom on the phone.

So friends and comrades, let's flock on and walk together to Free the Phone.

Image courtesy: www.openmoko.com, www.linuxdevices.com

5 comments:

  1. Thank you so mcuh for posting your compliment on my Art Blog! I love to hear people's reaction to my art, it inspires me to keep on doing what I love - Creating Beautiful Art :) All the Best, Megan

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  2. My only disappointment with this device is the lack of 3G. But then again it has USB and I did recently purchase a 3.5G HSDPA modem. But they should have got that in.

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  3. @Megan, you are welcome. No need to repeat that I really like your paintings. :) Keep up the great work.

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  4. @Bud, yeah, I was also expecting 3G. It says FreeRunner will not ship with 3G built-in. But, what the hell? It's Open Source, I'm sold. :)

    BTW, we'd be happy to see a post on how to set up a HSDPA modem under Linux. ;)


    I also added a link to the full hardware specs of FreeRunner which is available here:
    http://wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/Neo_FreeRunner_GTA02_Hardware

    Hardware specs for the older 1973 model is here:
    http://wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/Neo1973_hardware

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  5. http://wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/Image:GTA02.jpg is a picture of FreeRunner. I'm not sure it's the real thing or a mock up. Looks cool anyway.

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