A couple of months ago, when apple announced its iphone, I happened to read about a relatively young project to free up the mobile phone, albeit in the form of an incomplete comparison between two phones which weren’t available yet. While the iphone was cool and exciting and apple could be relied upon to come up with a tightly integrated phone with a classy user interface, the restrictions on third party applications and the closed nature meant that you couldn’t conjure up your own apps and scripts. The vendor specific enhanced features was also a big turn off. The notion of an open smart phone was extremely exciting.

Recently, I attended a presentation on OpenMoko (Open Mobile Kommunikations), the project to create a completely open mobile phone platform. Sean Moss-Pultz, the project lead spoke on the motivation behind the project and the business model while Harald Welte went into technical details and gave a demo. It was most informative. An open phone means a lot more than just open source and free upgrades.

Phones have always been a very restrictive platform. The margins being wafer thin, a manufacturer needs to sell millions of units to be profitable. Its in their interests to encourage phone upgrades. One important motivation behind OpenMoko was to reduce the rate at which phones are rendered obsolete. According to Sean, hardware undergoes fewer changes than software so traditionally one ended up upgrading a phone where a software upgrade would suffice.

Of course, FIC has plans to benefit from OpenMoko. Sean mentioned that a major part of the manufacturing cost was software licenses, hence they benefit from free software. FIC also has a few companies interested in innovative uses for OpenMoko based devices. Carriers too would benefit from an increase in ARPU due to increased data usage, reduction in SAC and churn and the possibility of offering value added services such as data backup, etc.

The phone itself follows a simple philosophy, build a phone with great hardware and basic software (dialer, contacts, SMS, browser, drivers for bluetooth, wifi, gps and gsm, etc.). OpenMoko would have a apt like package manager system which would help users install additional applications for their tastes. Applications themselves could be either OpenMoko certified or community driven as in any desktop linux distribution operating system. Thats not all, an open phone allows unlimited flexibility that we’ve been trained to think impossible. For example, when a wifi or bluetooth network is available one could switch to (cheaper) VOIP calls and IM instead of SMS.

For a power user of course, the phone throws up endless possibilities. Some of them are so simple, yet would change the way you look at phones –

  • GPS aware profiles – automatically switch phone profiles based on location
  • ACLs, any number not in contacts can be made to pass through a set of access control rules before the call is accepted
  • Phone Tracking

More interesting ideas are here and elsewhere in the wiki. The first OpenMoko phone Neo1973 is coming real soon! The only question is to see if one should wait for the phase 2 device (which has a faster CPU and wifi) or if FIC comes up with an interesting upgrade deal.

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