Let’s say you want to load your MP3 collection onto your fancy smartphone using your favorite jukebox software — and not some application chosen by the phone manufacturer.
Or you want to install (or maybe even write) some cool new software on your phone, but you’re fed up with having the range of available apps dictated to you by “the man” (in his black turtleneck sweater).
Then again, maybe you just want to go through the phone’s software, line by line, to make sure that it isn’t sending all your corporate secrets to some e-mail server north of the border.
With most phones on the market, you’re not at liberty to do all of those — or even any of them, with some models. What you need is a smartphone that’s free.
So how come you don’t have one? The phone companies would love to give you a free phone. Don’t believe me? Look through any mobile network operator’s sales brochure and you’ll find they’re giving away a bunch of smartphones. Orange U.K., for instance, lists 28 models as “free” at the moment, including the sparkling new HTC Touch Diamond, the Sony-Ericsson W980 Walkman — and the BlackBerry 8820 that cost my boss $150 last year. (Don’t tell her.)
Of course, they’re not really free. You have to sign an airtime contract for 12 months, maybe longer. So not only are you tied to the man’s idea of cool downloads, his favorite jukebox, and his mail carrier (whomever that might be), you also have to stick with his choice of network operator for the next year.
Such restrictions are driving an enthusiastic, albeit small, group of smartphone users to choose a phone that’s free (as in speech), if not free (as in beer).
To find out more, I turned up one Friday night recently at La Cantine, a relatively new bar on the edge of one of Paris’ main business districts. There was free Wi-Fi, and some of the mostly young, mostly male, drinkers were playing with their mobile phones.
Unusually for a crowd like this, I couldn’t see any iPhones, even though sales of the 3G model had got off to a flying start following its launch here in July.
There were, though, rather a lot of Neo Freerunners for such a small gathering.
I’m more likely to be knocked off my bike by a passing motorist than to see one of these phones on an average day in Paris, so I knew I’d found the venue for the first meeting of Freerunner owners organized by the phone’s French distributor, Bearstech.
The Freerunner costs around $399 or €320, if you can find one in stock, and comes with a charger, a 1200 mAh battery, a stylus and a MicroSD memory card. You choose your mobile operator and slot in their SIM (Subscriber Identity Module).
The phone is a black slab of plastic with rounded ends, one of them pierced by a huge hole for attaching a lanyard. It has a touch-sensitive screen and one button, the power switch, which inevitably invites certain comparisons …
“The screen’s a bit smaller than the iPhone’s, but it’s got twice the number of pixels,” one owner told me. (That’s 2.8 inches and 480 x 640 pixels, compared to the iPhone’s 3.5-inch, 480 x 320 screen.)
“I only got mine last night. I’ve made a few calls already, but I haven’t managed to send a text message yet, although I did receive one,” said another user.
What made his phone special was that it was the only one present still running the software it originally shipped with.
If you want to meddle with the Freerunner’s software, there’s no need to “jailbreak” it. You can flash it with new software whenever you like: update it, downgrade it, recompile it or replace it — a freedom that the other owners had most certainly taken advantage of, simply because they could.
That’s because the Freerunner runs Linux, while the graphical applications running on top of that to handle dialing, contact management, e-mail and so on are also open source. Freerunner owners have access to the source for all its code, and can modify it and add to it at will.
One person had even installed a port of Debian Linux on his. That turned out not to be so much fun, though, because he hadn’t set it up to run a graphical interface or any kind of touch input. The only way get it to do anything was to connect to it from a nearby laptop using ssh, and issue commands to install and run new software packages that way.
There were almost as many reasons for taking an interest in the Freerunner as there were people present.
Several said they were looking for an interesting open-source software project to which they could contribute. That’s good news for less-gifted Freerunner owners, because some aspects of its software are still lacking a certain stability, while others need more polish.
A university lecturer in computer science wanted a platform for which his students could develop software. A signal processing engineer wanted to develop his own voice-recognition software.
Software developer Marcus Bauer had come along to explain how he ported his mapping and location software, Tango GPS, to the Freerunner — which delighted another attendee who wanted a phone he could take geo-caching.
A biologist said he was simply curious about whether he could use a phone like this. (“If you’ve got fingers, you should be OK,” one owner replied.)
There was also a lawyer, an architect — and yes, someone from the government, looking for a platform on which to develop “secure mobile applications.”
It takes all sorts to make a free world.