I’ve attended lots of conferences and trade shows in my life. Every one of them promises paradigm-shifting, industry-disrupting developments. It doesn’t matter if the business is servers or siding, it’s the same tune, just different words.
New stuff is often interesting and innovative — sometimes even enlightening — but seldom does it rise to the levels described in promoters’ hype. So my expectations for this week’s Emerging Telephony conference were modest.
If you set your expectations low, you’re disappointed less often. And sometimes you’re even pleasantly surprised, as I was yesterday when I caught up with Sean Moss-Pultz, the high-energy guy behind OpenMoko, the Linux-based open software stack that powers the FIC Neo 1973 mobile smartphone.
In a nutshell, Moss-Pultz’s message is: Completely open up the guts of the system and see what happens.
For example, Gutenberg’s moveable type didn’t in and of itself “do” anything. But it was an open platform that could be used to publish everything from Indulgences (one of the first commercially profitable applications), to Shakespeare, to the National Enquirer.
Imagine for a minute if one “content provider” controlled what could be published on Gutenberg’s invention. At the time, that content provider would have been the Roman Catholic Church. Not only wouldn’t we be reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, we’d probably still think the sun revolves around the earth.
Fast-forward a few centuries.
For most of the 20th century, Ma Bell controlled what we could do with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention. As a result, the functionality of a telephone was essentially unchanged until the Carter Phone Act opened up the network to any device that met specifications defined in the regulation.
“The Internet was created because phones were open,” Moss-Pultz explains. “You could plug things into it [the network]. The thing about the Internet is you can plug anything you want into it and it looks just the same: servers, mainframes, supercomputers all look the same as my small notebook — they all have an IP address. It’s the notion of absolutely open ecosystems that generates industries that are really innovative.”
Armed with this axiom, Moss-Pultz turned his gimlet eye on his mobile phone.
As a developer of cordless phone systems in China, Moss-Pultz was bothered “by the fact that we’d make these systems and they’re frozen in time. Even if you had ideas about how to make it better, you couldn’t ever do it. As a developer, it was incredibly frustrating working on these closed systems.”
As a phone user, he was also unhappy. “If there’s a new phone, I’ll buy it. I bought this really expensive Nokia. And not even a couple of weeks later they came out with a new one. The same exact hardware, just some new software. And I said to myself, being a software guy, why can’t I upgrade my phone?”
When the start-up that he was working for folded, and parent company Taiwan-based FIC put together a new group to build GSM phones, Moss-Pultz found himself with a perfect greenfield opportunity.
“We asked the question, if you started from zero, how could you do something that would be beneficial in GSM. Everybody and his brother makes GSM phones. What was needed was to a way to open up the industry so we can take advantage of this device that’s everywhere with you. We started this effort to make what we call a ‘freed phone,’ a truly open phone.”
The customary way to look at the phone, Moss-Pultz explains, is from the point of view of solving a problem, the main one being how to recreate PC functionality on a mobile phone. This is asking the wrong question. The right one is: What’s the opportunity?
“It’s the one thing we let into our lives — my Mom has a phone, my grandma has a phone, I have six phones — it’s with us everywhere we go. It knows its location. It’s always connected to the Internet. It has the processing power of a computer five years ago.”
But one important thing is missing, he says. That’s an open system that lets people in, that lets people do interesting things with phones.
“To do these things,” he explains, “you absolutely have to have access to the building blocks of these systems. In mobile phones the building blocks are the hardware. Anyone who writes applications for the mobile phone knows that if you can’t access the hardware, you really can’t do anything.
“Microsoft, Symbian will argue, ‘We have devices, you can write applications for them.’ But the truth is they give you a sandbox to play in,” he continues. “You can’t do things like access the microphone, so you have to buy a voice recorder — a microphone — when your phone should be able to do the same thing.”
However, being able to access the building blocks is only part of the picture. Moss-Pultz’ vision is that developers will not only create new uses out of the building blocks, they should also be able to change the ground rules to create new functionality.
He offers the example of fractal geometry. “Let’s say we have a function and we plug numbers and we get little sticks. And we get more and more of these little sticks and we get ferns, and then you can get trees and leaves.”
But it’s a closed system. All you’ll ever get is more of the same thing — faster dialing or clearer phone calls. “It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. You won’t ever get interesting new species. What’s needed to be revolutionary is the ability to rewrite the rules, “to be able to change the initial conditions.”
“The opportunity is to go from simple systems to creating complex systems, what I’m calling neo-forms,” says Moss-Pultz. “Simple devices is: us learning them. Neo-forms are: them learning us.” For example, a phone that knows by your location that you’re home and automatically connects to your home network and your stereo, and sends business calls directly to voicemail, because it’s observed that you typically do those things when you get home.
OpenMoko is designed to be a system where developers can rewrite the rules, where they can experiment, and where they can share the collective knowledge of “people hacking on things.”
“With OpenMoko everything is based on GPL [GNU General Public License] which always gives you the ability to change that code and publish that code,” he explains. “And if anybody uses that code, their code is also open. It’s viral.”
“I challenge you to think of a single innovation except viruses in the last 10 years,” Moss-Pultz says frequently. “The phone is maladaptive. Don’t follow the phone. Leapfrog it.”
For those of you who can’t wait to buy one, here are the details: the FIC Neo 1973 with OpenMoko is slated to be available next month and will retail for US $350. The keyboard-free device features a 2.8 inch 280 dpi touchscreen, a GPS antenna that is isolated from GSM subsystem, built-in Bluetooth, 64 MB NAND Flash, 128 MB SDRAM expandable to 4 GB.
Applications offered currently include: Dialer, Contacts, Calendar, and Application Manager. The name commemorates the year of first cellular phone call, 1973.