What Happened to Real Open Source Phones?

Wednesday Apr 20th 2011 by Serdar Yegulalp

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

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.

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

Here’s 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.”

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