Happy Birthday, Openmoko NEO FreeRunner!


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jul 04, 2008 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

The Openmoko project, which was designed to have a completely open phone (both software and hardware), has been going on for some time. They released a preliminary version of the hardware phone in limited quantities about a year ago (called the "Neo 1973"), and it seemed like the final hardware product was taking "forever".

Many people did not know, however, how difficult it was for the designers of this phone. In their desire to have a completely open and documented phone, they had to visit (and sometimes revisit) various hardware manufacturers who made the various chip sets in order to get the documentation and "openness" they wanted.

While at Campus Party, Columbia last week I had a chance to talk with Sean Moss-Pultz, one of the leaders of the project, and hear his presentation about the trials and tribulations of working with embedded component hardware vendors.

It was especially interesting to hear the story about one chip supplier that refused to make their documentation and specifications "Open". Sean finally had to fly to the company's headquarters and talk with their CEO. It turns out that the company was simply embarrassed that their documentation was so poor, and they did not want to expose this poor documentation and have it seen by the world. Sean promised to help them re-write their documentation so they could publish it, and all was fine.

If Sean had been able to see me in the audience, I was nodding my head in agreement, since I had exactly the same experience at Digital Equipment Corporation over twenty years ago. Companies who make "closed" components, or components where they expect to write the device drivers themselves, often do not take care when they write their specifications and documents. They think these documents will only be for internal consumption, and they sometimes put trade secrets, competitive information, or just insulting comments in the documents, thinking that the documents will always be "internal". When asked to make the documents public, the companies refuse, knowing that they would have to spend time and money "cleaning" the document. Sad, but true. Perhaps in the future vendors will train their engineers and product managers to produce professional "open" documents from the beginning, separating out the trade secrets from the publicly needed data, and this particular issue will disappear.

However, the NEO FreeRunner has successfully made it past the gestation period, and is now celebrating its birthday. We can hope that having a completely open phone will generate the kind of freedom in communications and integrated telephony/IT that the Openmoko people envision.

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