Can you really build your own mobile phone? E&T investigates the options presented by open source hardware and software, and outlines why the market may yet take off.
When Tom Yates unpacked the phone that arrived from Openmoko, the open source mobile phone company, there was one difference between it and the Nokia 6230 he had used before: he couldn't make a call on it.
"It just didn't work. It shipped, basically, non-functional," says Yates.
Yet now, as free software consultant at Gatekeeper Technology, Yates runs his business with the help of the FreeRunner handset, which has evolved to the point that it won't miss calls. "That is my communications device. I would not say it's free of pain. But with the 2009 software, as a GSM handset, it's pretty much completely reliable now," he claims.
The voice quality could be better - especially when making calls to other mobiles where there is a lot of background noise - but that is reminiscent of the early days of GSM, as handset makers learned what conditions upset the voice codec and found workarounds.
In a market saturated with phones that are a long way from perfect but at least work out of the box, Openmoko's approach seems destined for failure, especially given the decision to postpone development of a follow-on handset in April and a round of layoffs in July.
But there is a demand for this kind of hardware.
According to Sean Moss-Pultz, CEO of Openmoko, the range of companies that want to use handsets built on open source principles is expanding. "There are many unexpected markets that we have come into contact with," he claimed in his keynote at the OpenExpo conference in Switzerland earlier this year, pointing to the example of Oxford Archaeology, a private company that offers archeological services, which is bringing handset technology to the world of site excavations.
Joseph Reeves, of Oxford's OA Digital consultancy arm, says the company looked at tablets and small notebook computers but chose a phone because it "gives us options of connectivity and presents a form factor that is familiar and comfortable to users".
Open source principles
Yates chose the Openmoko FreeRunner device because of his support for the principles of free software. A spell at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1990s, when Richard Stallman was developing version two of the Gnu General Public Licence, convinced him of the value of the free-software movement, a movement that is now extending into the world of hardware development with handsets such as the FreeRunner.
Yates cites the controversy around Apple's iPhone as an example of why open source devices are important. Users who have attempted to install software not approved by Apple - a practice known as jailbreaking - have found their handsets turned into useless bricks by later software updates. The music service Spotify ran into problems getting its iPhone application approved by Apple - which was believed to be protecting its iTunes music store.
"I am sympathetic to the problems people have had with jailbreaking and other issues with the iPhone but end users bring this on themselves by choosing function over freedom," says Yates.
By choosing an open source phone, Yates can run pretty much any software he likes on the FreeRunner. One thing he wants to do is use Unix's ability to chain programs together to build more complex tools. Fed up with spam arriving over SMS, he would like to have the texts run through SpamAssassin in the same way one can with email.
"These things can be done on any handset but, in most cases, the vendor has to want to do them for me," explains Yates.
Enabling new markets
Handset vendors have already used Linux and other open source software. The problem for most handset vendors, Yates explains, is that their direct customer is usually the network operator, which does not have an inherent interest in giving users the ability to block broadcast texts. Operators have dropped other functions, such as the ability to send pictures over a Bluetooth link to a computer, in attempts to boost their own revenue.
"The power of Openmoko over other Linux-based mobiles, such as Android, is the flexibility of the system. Importantly, we're much less restricted by policy decisions made by others," Reeves adds.
For example, having greater control over the phone makes it possible to use it as a USB host, making it easier to download pictures from a camera. This kind of support "is missing from current Android handsets, despite rumours that the hardware supports it".
Michael Lauer, embedded systems engineer and a key member of the Freesmartphone.org (FSO) community, which provides the telephony stack in most Openmoko users' handsets, says: "The important thing to understand is that being open for free software is not just a small niche thing: there are major vertical markets that could emerge if vendors would provide full control over the hardware to these customers, who often are solution providers for other customers."
Not having open hardware makes it far more difficult for these third-party developers to innovate, Lauer claims.
Open source hardware sounds good but comes with real-world issues that companies which only sell software do not face. Ahead of a recent set of layoffs to cut costs, Moss-Pultz said the company was burning through a lot of cash. One big draw on the company's cashflow was a growing pile of inventory.
Emboldened by sales of a few thousand handsets a month after the FreeRunner's July 2008 launch, Openmoko ordered more towards the end of last year. But as recession took hold of the economy, sales dwindled and inventory built up. The company decided the best option was to shelve a follow-on design, codenamed GTA03, slash funding to a couple of the open source phone software projects and work on 'Project B' - a PDA-like device that will definitely not be a phone.
As Openmoko backed away from the phone business, the GTA02-Core effort sprang up in an attempt to see if the community can take the project forward. According to IT consultant Werner Almesberger, who is leading the effort, the aim is not to produce a product for mass manufacture but "establish a flexible process that can be used to make something real".
The GTA02-Core design focuses on the radio components that form the heart of the FreeRunner product. It is an effort that exposes some of the problems that make open hardware difficult to create. The Texas Instruments Calypso modem documentation is covered by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that makes it impossible to release a design built around it publicly. So, the search has begun for a replacement device that is not covered by an NDA, or at least one that allows PCB design files for it to be made public.
However, the project has attracted the attention of the Brazilian government, which is actively promoting the use of open source software in the country. Professor Marcelo Zuffo, head of the laboratory for integrated systems at the University of São Paulo, claims communications minister Hélio Costa is enthusiastic about the idea and the professor has offered the lab's surface-mount production line for use in making prototypes and short runs.
Linux International president Jon Hall, who asked for Zuffo's help on the Openmoko community project, wrote in a message to members: "I would like to see this concept extended, of inviting more universities and their facilities to help with this project world-wide".
If Openmoko as a company does not return to the world of open handsets, it does not mean the short life of the open phone is over. Its work may yet be the start of a family of grass-roots handset initiatives.