Thursday, February 21, 2008

OpenMoko urges Android to release everything as source code

While I was in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress 2008, I received a message from Sean Moss-Pultz, CEO of OpenMoko, producer of the world's most open mobile phones. Their Freerunner, Neo 1973 and Dash Express devices use the open source operating system Linux and people can install every software they want on it with just an apt-get. Where other companies have a Linux kernel with a locked proprietary stack on top of it, the OpenMoko phones are open from top to bottom. You can use your own tools, compile your own kernel. Everything barring a few small drivers is open source under GNU General Public License (GPL).

In Barcelona I talked to a representative of the LiMo foundation who doesn't want to be quoted with his name. He revealed that LiMo Linux is in fact a closed shop. The only aim of the LiMo companies is to produce cheap handsets with a versatile operating system that doesn't cost them a dime. Most end users won't even notice that it's Linux because they are not allowed to install any software for „security reasons“. More open is Android of Google's Open Handset Alliance, he said, but the most open system is OpenMoko.

Read what their CEO Sean Moss-Pultz thinks about the Android and other actual developments! He has answered my interview questions by email.

What's the actual status of Openmoko?
We limited our production of handsets for developers. Our goal was to sell a small number to an enthusiastic crowd. When we sold out in 3 days, we realized that we need to build another batch of phones. From our standpoint the developers are engineers in our company. We don't have more than 10,000, currently. As the project became more noticeable we got inquiries from many different directions. So, for the next release of FreeRunner we will plan for more at the start and get ready for ramp up of consumer oriented products. The coolest thing about a Neo is what it doesn't do. It doesn't lock you out. It's a GNU/Linux computer. It does what you want.

What is the most difficult thing about building a GSM phone from scratch with Linux?
OpenMoko started as a project inside FIC (Taiwan) and has recently been turned into it's own company. So, we've had to build a open software stack, build a team, build a product, plan a future, and build a company, while everyone gets to watch.

Most of the challenges, I would say, are philosophical in nature. Not technical.

In an closed company you go through various stages of hardware development. These stages are hidden from the general public. Prototype hardware is built and passed out to a few select internal developers. Later, more hardware is built. In a pilot run. This is distributed internally to more engineers in the company. Finally, it's presented to the public like it just came out of the oven.

OpenMoko is inside out. Our prototype are shared with developers around the world. Why? because our engineers are outside the company as well as inside.

In some ways we are like a reality TV show. Showing how one builds a gadget of the future. It's like a cross of Survivor, Dirty jobs, and ice road truckers.

What can your handset do, the Neo1973? Give us some specs and tell what is so great about it, compared to normal mobile phones!
The hardware specs for the phone are on, but in short its a GSM phone, with GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, 3D graphics acceleration and accelerometers. But this is not a spec war and this is not a beauty contest. Neo branded phones unlock the hardware and unlock the software. The software on the phone, the applications you use are totally open. If you program you can change them. If you don't program you will download popular programs that others have built.

Which people do already have such a handset, the Neo1973? Can people buy it somewhere? Is it planned to be sold to the general public some day?
Our Neo 1973 has been onsale since July of 2007. We're totally sold out now and won't make anymore. Our next produce Neo FreeRunner is coming soon.

I think we primarily appeal to technologists now and will stay this way for the some time to come. But this is not at all limiting. What I find most appealing about OpenMoko is that we just have to provide the right framework for change to happen. Our community is the one that pushes the revolution. The more people that develop for this platform, the larger the target market becomes.

We've found a strong and influential niche. In the age where mass market TV advertising is dead, this is crucial. Marketing a product initially to the masses is impossible, I would argue. People have too many choices and not enough time.

OpenMoko stands out because we are different. We speak directly to the needs of an extremely creative group. Our goal is to provide them tools and inspiration so they can realize the have power to revolutionize the world. OpenMoko is a company from their community. We will amplify their voice.

How did the OpenMoko project start? Whose idea was it and who pushed it forward?
About a year and a half ago I was a product manager at First International Computer (FIC) -- a large Taiwanese OEM, charged with Defining the product roadmap for our division. I was quite limited, unfortunately, by having to create only Windows Mobile devices.

I quickly realized that it didn't need to be like this. I could step outside the box any time I liked.

The phone that I really wanted to create was the modern equivalent of the programmable calculator. A device that is simple to use, but almost infinitely extensible by the end user.

The main idea was that the driving force behind the Internet is Free and Open Software (FOSS). It's the superconductive medium that powers the Internet. Without FOSS the Internet would be trapped in 1995.

In a nutshell, OpenMoko is about spreading this technology to mobile devices. Letting people everywhere "Free your phone." It's the birth of a new Internet. Not merely a revision, not simply 2.0, but rather a connected, interconnected experience wherever you wander.
Without FOSS the mobile phone still lives in 1973.

Our first open mobile device is called the "Neo 1973". It's internet connected, location aware, and completely FOSS. In a way, I see the mobile industry as a matrix. The industry is hindered by proprietary systems and Neo is trying to tear down the walls unplug humans from the matrix and give them back their power.

I took this idea and pitched it to our senior management team with the help of Timothy Chen -- a very smart businessman. Without him, this whole project would only be another unfulfilled entry in my sketchbook.

How is Openmoko organized today? How do you include all those Linux developers worldwide? Is there a boss or a structure?
We are a fully independent company now:

Lots of people trying to make great open mobile devices.

What is your opinion about Android?
We support FOSS endeavors. In our philosophy, a software platform needs to be free from the iron to the eyeballs. That means FOSS code from the lowest levels that talk to hardware to the highest levels that present images to users. We hope Android moves in this direction. We encourage them to.

Is Openmoko involved with Android?
Yes. We lobby them to join the FOSS movement and release everything as source code, all the way down to the drivers like we do.

Has Openmoko been contacted by Android?

Is Openmoko source code involved in Android?
Our source code is freely available GPL.

Maybe Android source code is involved in Openmoko?
If they posted GPL code and our community found that it was good and useful it would get used. That's what FOSS is all about. This is how FOSS gets stronger for everyone.

How does the launch of Android affect the Openmoko project?
It's rather humbling. We never expected a company like Google to endorse our concept of freeing the phone. It's also exciting because we realize that with their support of developers many new open applications will come to the FOSS platform.

Why did Harald Welte leave? He was Openmoko's "Senior Software Archtitect System Level" and we were very proud that he was from our city, Berlin.
Berlin should be proud. Harald is a great programmer and was key to getting The first phone, Neo 1973, shipped. He did a huge amount of work and is still a part of every Neo that ships.

What does this change?

We have our goals which Harald helped create, and we are meeting those goals and going beyond them. We are prepared because of his diligence.

How do you see mobile communications in ten years? Everything seems to "open" now. Verizon and AT&T open their network, Google bids for an open spectrum at 700 Mhz, Mobile Wimax promises more open mobile communications...
You could say there were two theories. In one theory the user pays for bandwidth (time on line) and the device (phone, set top box etc) is free. In the reverse world, bandwidth is free (like free WiFi) and people buy great devices.

In one world you pay premiums for bandwith, in the other you pay premiums for devices.

Opening the network...levels the playing field and gives people more choices. This is what Openmoko is all about.


  1. Saludos Markus. Interesante artículo sobre OpenMoko, y la telefonía libre. A ver que nos depara el futuro en este tema, porque existe muchos proyectos iniciados, como android, pero no concluidos.
    Se ve que en Barcelona, has estado en primera línea de la noticia, y habrás sacado tus propias conclusiones.
    Gracias por la información.

  2. openmoko is great and think andriod may be great. but from what i hvae heard andriod will be focused on high end handsets(as in expensive.) what i would really like to see is an open source operating system that can replace the built in software on cheap commodity phone that are out there. instead of designing special hardware, why not hack a mid level nokia handset and develop a total software replacement. this would have the potential to get into the hands of the most people at the lowest cost. i also like the message that hacked phones send out in general; that we want more out of our handsets and if the operators/phone manufactures do not produce it we will get another way.

  3. Gracias por tu comentario, Jesús. Estoy preparando muchos textos más. Sólo que antes tengo que transcribir mis grabaciones y terminar otros trabajos periodisticos.

  4. Interesting interview!


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