July 10, 2008

Open and closed, Part I

The last few weeks have seen a couple of announcements in the tech world: the launch of the new 3G iPhone from Apple, and a new round of investment in the popular but increasingly unreliable microblogging service Twitter. Each of these events has been discussed in the tech press, and the iPhone in particular is currently the subject of much hype and publicity,having gone on sale today.

Both of these things, however, have eclipsed a couple of developments that are, arguably, far more interesting and with much greater potential to shake up the established order. With all due respect to the iPhone, which has had a dramatic impact on the smartphone market, the new model is probably more accurately seen as an upgrade of the first-generation model than as something all-new—at least in terms of hardware. The new hardware features are GPS and 3G support (i.e., support for the GSM HSDPAprotocol, a mobile broadband standard). Unfortunately, GPS tends to drastically reduce battery life, and AT&T offers 3G access in only a limited number of areas. Because the new phone requires a much more expensive calling plan, and the other improvements to the new iPhone are software improvements that are available to current iPhone owners as a download, there has been some grumbling that upgrading to the new iPhone may not be worth it to current owners.

What the iPhone hype has obscured is the launch of a phone that, while not a direct competitor to the iPhone in any real sense, is at least a shot across the bow from an unlikely source. The OpenMoko group has introduced the Neo Freerunner, a touch-screen, tri-band unlocked GSM phone that bears more than a passing resemblance to a rounded-off iPhone. The potentially game-changing thing about the Freerunner is its open-source nature. While the iPhone runs a version of OS X, the Freerunner uses a mobile version of Linux—and unlike the iPhone, an owner can legally hack into its operating system, add programs to it, and generally alter it to his or her heart's content.

True, most people aren't interested in doing that to their mobile phone, but the emergence of the iPhone Dev Team showed that a fair number of people want the ability to customize their phone regardless of the manufacturer's wishes. Apple would prefer that this not happen, which is likely the reason why the new iPhone must be activated in-store rather than at home through iTunes, as was the case with the previous model. With the Freerunner, there is no such limitation, and the inclusion of a Linux-style package manager should make installation of new programs a breeze. The Freerunner is not an exact match for the iPhone feature-for-feature; for example, there is no camera, it doesn't support HSDPA, and you won't be using it to sync up to your iTunes library anytime soon.

Because it's an unlocked phone, not subsidized by a mobile operator such as AT&T, it's also more expensive. But for what it is, it's an extremely interesting peek into a world of much greater wireless freedom than we're used to. Lots of people must agree; as I write this, the GSM 900 version is sold out at the NeoMoko store. Coming up in Part II: Twitter and the world of microblogging, and a new open-source competitor.