Insider Info on the First Fully Open-Source Cell Phone

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The Neo 1973, the first phone to use the open-source, Linux-based OpenMoko mobile operating system, has techies abuzz in anticipation of its October consumer release.

Though the phone's large, touch-screen display might evoke comparisons with the iPhone, OpenMoko's approach to software is the exact opposite of Apple's. Apple doesn't allow third-party software to run on the iPhone (Web 2.0 sites notwithstanding), ostensibly to maintain the company's hallmark smooth and controlled user experience.

In contrast, OpenMoko's success may largely depend on whether the open-source community gets involved in writing new programs or inducing some of the multitude of existing Linux programs to work under OpenMoko.

The Neo 1973 is available now for $300 as an early, not-fully-functional developer release for hackers eager to see what they can make it do. When it ships in the fall for an expected $450, it will come unlocked rather than through a particular carrier, so you can choose your own cell phone company (with a GSM network) and plan.

The phone sports a 2.8-inch touch-screen display that works with finger taps or a stylus (though it does not match the iPhone's multitouch capabilities). It uses the GSM cell network and the unfortunately slow GPRS data network. It has built-in GPS, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, and supports microSD memory cards. (A full list of the specs appears at the end of this story. To compare the OpenMoko specs with those of the iPhone and five competing handsets, see our handy chart.)

We got in touch with OpenMoko to ask some techie questions about the "hacker's iPhone." Here are answers from Sean Moss-Pultz, acting president.

PCW: Are there any plans to upgrade the Neo to use faster data networks?

OpenMoko: We plan on going 3G next year. This first device uses existing Gerber designs from our feature phones to lower the costs. Remember that this is an unlocked, nonsubsidized phone. So $300 is actually incredibly cheap. We thought this was super-important, to help with early adoption.

Adding 3G would increase the cost by more than 80 percent.

PCW: Are the 3D accelerometers [which help phones know if they are changing position] meant to support an ability to determine when the phone is held horizontally or vertically, and adjust the display accordingly?

OpenMoko: Well, this is one possible usage scenario. It's a totally open device. I'm sure people will come up with stuff that we've never seen before.

You can see one example of a simple program that will use these accelerometers.

PCW: Will the GPS hardware support full navigation programs, and be able to provide turn-by-turn directions based on current location? If so, will such a program ship with the phone in October?

OpenMoko: We put GPS functionality into the Neo 1973, because when your phone knows its location, it can adapt its behavior in significant ways, without even a hint of artificial intelligence.

There are quite a few people who are working on navigation applications in the mobile space. Some of these are quite good now. I'm sure we'll see something by October. But we're not working on anything. Navigation, in a way, is boring to us.

We want to make devices that are location-aware. We want all the applications to know their current position. For example, if you have a to-do list that is location-aware, your Neo could notify you of all your pending tasks when you walk in to work or go to your favorite supermarket.

When devices know their location, they can start learning about us instead of [our having to] learn about our devices.

PCW: Is there a planned list of applications that will ship with the consumer version in October? In particular, which Web browser, e-mail client, and calendar will it ship with?

OpenMoko: Yes, we do have a list.

As for particulars, we write the interface ourselves, but a lot of the base code comes from existing FOSS [Free and Open Source Software] projects. E-mail will be based on the TinyMail framework. Our browser is based on WebKit (the same stuff that Safari is using).

PCW: Can Firefox and Thunderbird, theoretically, run on the OpenMoko platform? What about add-ons and plug-ins?

OpenMoko: Firefox and Thunderbird are really heavy. Technically they probably could work. But it wouldn't make much sense. They would just be too slow.

We're working on some very lightweight programs that will be more optimized for both the processing power and the screen size of mobile devices.

PCW: Will developers need to write new applications for the OpenMoko platform, or can they theoretically recompile existing Linux applications, as techies currently enjoy doing for the various Linux distributions?

OpenMoko: OpenMoko uses lots of existing FOSS, such as the Linux kernel, the GNU C library, the X window system, and the GTK+ toolkit, to name only a few. So yes, within memory and resource constraints, these existing applications should work with minor porting efforts.

Neo 1973 Specifications

As listed by Gizmodo, and confirmed by OpenMoko:

  • 4.75 by 2.44 by 0.72 inches
  • 2.8-inch VGA (480-by-640) TFT screen
  • Samsung 2442 @ 400 MHz SoC
  • SMedia 3362 G graphics accelerator
  • Global Locate AGPS chip
  • Ti GPRS (2.5G, not EDGE)
  • Unpowered USB 1.1
  • Touch screen
  • MicroSD slot
  • 2.5mm audio jack
  • Two additional buttons
  • 1200-mAh battery (charged over USB)
  • 128MB SDRAM
  • 256MB NAND flash
  • Bluetooth (2.0)
  • Wi-Fi b/g
  • Two 3D accelerometers
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