In the world of print, every “niche” publisher that operates as an actual business (as opposed to the publishing arm of an institution like a university) knows they need to sell titles which fall far outside of a narrow niche, titles that can sustain their business. Those breakout titles sell orders of magnitude more copies than their other books. This keeps the business alive, and allows them to deliver their niche content that much more reliably. The same tactic could be used here, without compromising anyone’s intentions.
I’m also convinced that one of the best ways to push an open project to the next level is to turn it into an everyday product. Open source projects are nominally the end result of just folks tinkering away, working on whatever strikes their fancy. But when you take the best ideas and implementations from that tinkering and put it in a form everyone can use, then it really thrives and proliferates. It’s no longer bounded by its niche appeal.
And for it to take root outside such an environment and accept feedback from unexpected directions, it needs to be cast in a form the technologically non-savvy can work with. It needs to be finished, in the sense of polished.
Call that dumbing-down if you like, but a polished item can be just as useful to a hardware whiz as is to the hoi polloi, and often for the same reason. It’s one less thing to worry about. Nobody complains about the polish of Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, because even the most sophisticated users benefit from it.
Moko vs. Droid
Heres why Android made such a dent, and OpenMoko remains a footnote. Android, for all its problems and device-specific implementations, was something Google sweated pretty hard over to make into a useful product. There’s still a lot left to be done—they need to address the very valid criticisms of bloatware and inconsistency that make Android handsets such a crapshoot—but there’s enough existing momentum from their current user base to make future iterations of Android a big draw. Even with all those issues, Android is still useful out of the box in a way that the OpenMoko wasn’t—and might not ever have been because of the manner in which it was conceived.
This is also why Android has far more transformative potential than OpenMoko. Heck, even iOS has more potential, simply because it’s in that many more people’s hands. The closed-endedness of iOS (or even Android, depending on how strict your definition of “closed” or “open” is) hasn’t stopped people from creating remarkable applications for that system.
For me, the main problem with iOS or Android isn’t the platforms themselves, but the stewardship of those platforms. Apple’s rather arbitrary policing of what apps could be obtained through their store and Android’s rather fractured deployment are both problematic. Not fatal, but annoying enough to inspire conversation and action about how things could be different.
Let’s say the OpenMoko had been introduced today. With some thought and attention, it could have been positioned as a response to the problems of both Android and iOS. If it had been given that much more polish and not simply left on the level of a hobby tool, it might well have made that much more of a dent. Alternatively, it could have been shipped explicitly as a ‘Droid phone for regular users, and with its hackability as a bonus for those who knew what they were getting themselves into.
People, me included, talked constantly about how much potential there was in the OpenMoko. I understand now, all too well, that an okay device which everyone uses adds up to far more in the real world than a theoretically great device which no one has ever heard of. But with a little attention to marketing and development, it doesn’t have to be that way. “Obscure” should not be the opposite of “closed.”