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The Complete Open Phone

by Matthew Hamrick
09/05/2006

Editor's Note: Matthew Hamrick is the co-founder of the Silicon Valley Homebrew Mobile Phone Club, and in this editorial he takes issue with Trolltech's declartion that its Greenphone supports "unlimited software innovation." Matthew instead proposes a truly open mobile phone platform.

Last week Trolltech used the LinuxWorld Expo as the backdrop to announced the "Greenphone." (also, LinuxDevices is running an article about it too.) The Greenphone is, according to Trolltech, targeted squarely at the open source community. No more will carriers and handset manufacturers tightly control the bits on your handset, now you'll be able to put your own apps on a high-quality mobile phone that has an integrated camera and WiFi connection. For the first time, so the press release goes, you'll be able to flash your own applications onto a "real" phone. In Trolltech's marketing speak, the Greenphone is "the First Linux Mobile Development Device Open for Unlimited Software Innovation."

I've got to admit I'm intrigued. It sounds great, and I don't want to diminish what Trolltech is up to here. It's a very cool idea and a step in the right direction. I hope to see other mobile Linux software houses follow suit.

However, I take a little bit of umbrage with the term "Unlimited Software Innovation." Innovative? You bet. I mean seriously, you can develop a Qt app, build a new OS image, and flash it onto your device. But "Unlimited Software Innovation"? What if I wanted to use L4/Linux? Or someone else's kernel? There might be a few problems there. Why? Well, it turns out that the GSM chip-set used by Trolltech's hardware partner is as closed as an IBM mainframe circa 1974. What if I wanted to ditch all the Qtopia stuff and add my own UI widget set? Would that be copasetic? Would Trolltech sue me if I *gasp* tried to put the Access Linux Platform (ALP) on its Greenphone?

Don't worry, things aren't going to get to that stage; there's virtually no motivation to try. Without the closed source GSM driver from Broadcom, the Greenphone is basically a Linux PDA with an integrated camera and a bad keyboard. Sources tell me the Greenphone and its associated development kit will be retailing for around $620. At that price, there are plenty of cheaper, non-phone, mobile Linux platforms around (like maybe the Nokia 770.)

And let's not forget that Trolltech's SDKs are not free. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they're without value. Trolltech has done a good job of partnering with companies such as Sharp and Archos to produce high-value products. But if you build a Qtopia application for your Greenphone, it's only going to run on platforms that support Qtopia.

So what would I do instead?

Let me pitch you on the idea I'm calling "the complete open phone." The goal of the complete open phone is to provide developers a complete platform for innovation. Starting with the mobile phone hardware and ending with the wireless network services. I think we all know that a nice open source operating system is a key component. How 'bout Linux? Add to that the GNU tools and we're well on our way. Just add a good idea and some talented software engineers and you're half-way to changing the world, one handset at a time.

But the word "applications" in the mobile space tends to have a broader meaning than for desktop systems. Mobile applications frequently call for new hardware: GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, WiMax, cameras, biometric fingerprint readers, RFID readers, smart card readers, the whole lot. Want to make it easy for next-generation application developers to innovate? Provide standard hardware designs to go with the software. Open the designs, make them easy to modify and then you'll really have something.

Experience in the last two decades shows that innovation comes not from corporate research labs, but where technically proficient users encounter problems. End consumers of technology are perfectly able and willing to develop new approaches. But only if they have the tools. The complete open phone is just that--a tool chain for individual innovators, open hardware designs that can be modified without prior consent, and operating system software to connect the hardware to application layers and device services.

It's not as crazy as it might seem. Fifteen years ago nay-sayers were lining up to explain why open source software could not possibly impact the commercial vendors. But that was before Linux, Apache, MySQL, and the whole raft of open source successes. The mobile device market is a slightly different nut to crack, but the time has come to enable lead users looking for mobile solutions.

Matthew Hamrick is an engineering professional focusing on software security for mobile platforms.


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