November 2006

Congratulations Madam, it’s a phone

Now that the cat is out of the box, I can finally tell you a bit more about this project. You probably have seen all the press releases, so I don’t need to recap what you can expect out of it as a user. This is about what’s in for you as a developer, because this is what has attracted me so much as well. Please note though that I’m not speaking officially for FIC here — this is my personal take on the project.

For years, the embedded open source community has been lusting for a hackable phone. A lot of (more or less successful) open source efforts went around putting Linux on hardware running WindowsCE based operating systems. All in all most of these were frustrating experiences, because reverse engineering is just a terrificly time consuming approach and by the end of the day, it’s of questionable legalty as well. If you really manage to put Linux on a phone without the help of a manufacturer it will take you so long that by the time you’re done, it has been already obsoleted. This has happened a lot of times in the past and we want to change it — since although the work being sort of educating and fun (at times), it’s a lot of wasted effort that most of us would rather spend working on actual applications.

Up to today, there is nothing like an open phone available. Instead, most of the so-called „open source friendly“ manufacturers are trying to lock you out — by using SElinux, booting signed kernels only, etc. The FIC Neo1973 is different.

The partnership with FIC is a unique opportunity for developers who care about projects like GPE, Opie, OpenEZX, XanaduX, and friends, since it enables us to make a phone software stack done exactly the way we like it — „bottom-up“ standardization instead of doing it „top-down“. The OpenEmbedded community has quite a lot of experience when it comes to integration issues and this is why the OpenMoko distribution will be an OpenEmbedded derived Linux distribution.

GUI-framework wise, it has been an easy choice. Most of the application hacker momentum is focused around X11-based frameworks like Gtk+, Qt, wxWidgets, fltk, fox, and the like. There is absolutely no reason to not base your phone GUI framework on one of those toolkits and this is why we chose the X11/Matchbox/Gtk+ combination for this phone platform. Being a strong supporter of C++ and Qt though, I’m very interested in getting this effort to a point where it’s possible to write e.g. Qt phone applications that run inside the Gtk+ based UI framework and don’t look alien.

Consequently, given a GObject-based C framework, adding language bindings should be a straightforward task as well. FIC has understood that this will be an iterative process. We don’t expect to present a fully featured phone when we start shipping it in Q1/2007, but we rather adhere to releasing „early and often“. By working together with the open source community guys right from the start, I believe in FIC’s smartphone division establishing a solid and healthy relationship. This will hopefully include device discounts for developers as well as listening to us about future hardware platforms. If we manage to make this a successful proof-of-concept open source device, we might be in a position where our wishes about the shape of things and the type of hardware to include in future devices might reach very open ears.

Update: Some clarifications, since I’ve seen a couple of wrong facts on various sites:

  1. It got a micro-SD-slot and a SIM-card slot (of course, hey… it’s a phone)
  2. It’s got a headphone socket.
  3. The only proprietary bits are the GSM modem part (which is not even running on the application processor, but on a seperate certified TI module) and something for the assisted GPS. We have Harald ‚Mr. GPL‘ Welte on board, so rest assured that everything that can be open actually _is_ open.
  4. I am ‚a‘ (aka one of three) founder of OpenEmbedded, not _the_ founder.
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