With all the hype surrounding the iPhone, it's time to consider what this little wonder can really do as a replacement for your portable computer. Of course, iPhone isn't the only player in the market, just the most popular. Apple certainly has a way of getting their name out and making a big splash with their products. The open source and open hardware project OpenMoko, however, promises to be everything the iPhone is and more.
Now let's get beyond the "way cool" bling of the iPhone, for just a moment. I know it's difficult, with it's simple gesture-based interface and it's sleek graphics and text handling, but let's focus on utility here. Essentially, what the iPhone does is makes phone calls, send SMS messages, and let you play around with ringtones, themes and pictures on your phone. Secondary features are music, video and WiFi (yes, a very nice features to have in a phone). Finally, making full use of that WiFi, are the applications you can run on the iPhone: web browsers, mail, maps, YouTube and so on.
The thinking that went into this device is phenomenal: multitouch screen, automatic orientation to landscape when you rotate the phone, proximity sensor for detecting when you're talking on the phone (so you don't take pictures of your ear), simple WiFi interface, OS X multitasking core, smart widgets, web applications to extend its functionality -- in short, it's got features most full-blown PCs don't have.
All of this is locked into a device controlled by one company: Apple.
Now let's consider an alternative: OpenMoko. Just what is OpenMoko? From the OpenMoko site:
The Neo 1973 runs totally Free Software...The Neo was specifically designed with openness and ease of developer-access from very start.
That's a pretty powerful statement. The first OpenMoko phone, the Neo 1973 is just the beginning. It's a totally open, user-accessible device. You can change the software it runs, you can add hardware, you can "tinker" with the device to your heart's content and make the phone truly yours. All the specs, all the software, everything is available for anyone interested, all under an open license that doesn't restrict how you use your phone.
Right now, the features in the developer model are fairly decent. The hardware is fairly typical of a common cell phone: SD card slot, built-in AGPS (as compared to the iPhone's WiFi locating techniques), a large photo-quality screen (although only single touch), enough memory for most uses, and the most open computing architecture available for these devices. Fairly boring stuff, really. What's exciting is the way this product is being developed. "If you can't open it, you don't own it" is what they believe.
The software end of things is where the OpenMoko gets really interesting. Developed using the open source model, all the code for the underlying OS and applications is being developed right out in the open. Anyone who wants to participate in shaping the way this device works is welcome. The code is there, and you can make this little gadget do anything you want. You want bling? You got it. You want business apps? Go ahead! This is a third party add-on company's dream! Imagine being able to fit your custom application into a phone that anyone can download your software on to. You don't have to sign a licensing agreement with Apple, or Nokia, or even a phone server provider like Bell or Telus.
OpenMoko is still just beginning, but the potential to be so much more than the iPhone is incredible. With the opportunity to truly innovate in the cell phone market, entirely new interfaces, applications and possibilities open up, and can stimulate growth in the industry.
Welcome to the opening of the cell phone market and customizable phones. Your phone is ringing.