What Happened to Real Open Source Phones?

Before Android, the truly open source OpenMoko proved that “open” can be a synonym for “awkward.”


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Remember the OpenMoko FreeRunner? It was an “open handset”—a totally hackable, user-configurable, bend-it-shape-it-any-way-you-want-it phone. It could have made the openness of Android and its attendant phones look as opaque as Apple.

And to the surprise of almost no one but the makers, it went nowhere. It was a great idea that remained obstinately stuck at the level of a great idea.

The vast majority of the phone-buying public has never heard of the FreeRunner, let alone OpenMoko as a company. But they’ve certainly heard of Android and Google, and the different ways the OpenMoko bombed make for a good case in how open too often comes at the expense of useful and complete.

The hardware

I have a hard time saying bad things about the devices themselves. They were, for their time, ambitious pieces of machinery, and they got good marks for being ruggedly built. (That’s a big thing for me, given how clumsy I am.) But the native software was widely criticized as being too primitive for anyone but the most devoted hardware hacker; you needed to add Android to the phone to make it truly useful to anyone who wasn’t a hacker.

Eventually, full-blown ‘Droid phones came along and made their mark, and messing around with an OpenMoko just to get a fraction of the same functionality suddenly didn’t seem like such a clever idea. OpenMoko’s most recent hardware device wasn’t a phone, but an offline Wikipedia reader. Given that there are mobile apps that accomplish much the same thing for most any phone … why?

The phone companies

Another big reason OpenMoko went nowhere was a lack of any partnership with the phone companies and handset providers. Most people get their phones as part of their cellular contract, and no phone company I know of sold an OpenMoko phone with their contracts.

The blame could go two ways here. Did the makers of the phone not bother to try and engage the telcos, out of some sense that it would constitute a deal with the devil?

I originally thought the phone companies took one look at the inherently rootable OpenMoko and ran for the hills, but they haven’t balked too badly at the way other phones—from the iPhone on down—can be rooted and customized from the inside out.

Either way, the fact that no phone company offered the OpenMoko with a contract plan—certainly not AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or any other major domestic carriers—was a major reason why no one outside its immediate fan base ever heard about it. I don’t mind blaming the phone companies for being fearful and regressive, since they do it all the time. But there was also no discernible pressure put on them to try and experiment.

If it was possible to get Dell to carry Ubuntu PCs, wouldn’t this have been possible too? Maybe not, since there are a lot more people using phones than there are PC users who care about open source.

The users

More than anything else, the OpenMoko phones flopped because they weren’t brought to the attention of, let alone crafted for, the people who could in theory most benefit from them: regular users.

Few people consider the hackability of a phone to be a major priority. It’s a bonus. What’s crucial is the everyday stuff: making and receiving calls reliably, getting good battery life, being easy to use, not locking up at random.

Most folks are not as fascinated with the idea of conducting risky experiments on their phone that could end in bricking the whole thing, all to gain access to features which they may well have no practical use for. (Go and tell your average non-technical iPhone user that you can SSH into your phone and see if you get anything other than a blank stare.) I myself liked the OpenMoko as a concept, but I wasn’t about to make it into my primary phone.

The folks who report on and analyze technology for a living are a wonderful, brainy bunch, but they tend to fall victim to the idea that everyone else who’s not a whiz with gizmos will want to be that way once they’re talked into it. No; most folks just want stuff to work well so they can get things done that have nothing to do with the devices themselves. It’s unrealistic, and unfair, to expect otherwise. Elitist technological savvy should not be a moral imperative.

The open project problem

Open projects like the OpenMoko often suffer from a common flaw: they aren’t being accomplished with an eye toward how they can be made into anything practical for the end user. They remain glorified hobbyist’s items, with concessions towards usability (or usefulness) pooh-poohed as attempts to dumb down the end result. This isn’t meant to be a slap at hobbyists, but at the idea that their pursuits represent an ideal above and beyond those who create polished finished products for a mass market. Both have their place.

One common response I’ve heard to such criticism is that the OpenMoko, and projects like it, aren’t meant to be marketed to end users. They’re for hobbyists and tinkerers. That’s fine, but I question whether marketing to such a self-limiting group is sustainable for hardware.

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Tags: open source, mobile, android apps, iphone apps, open source hardware

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