iPhone vs. OpenMoko: free software on your cell phone

Apple's big announcement yesterday was the long-anticipated iPhone, an Apple-designed PDA with GSM capabilities. Granted, many modern phones these days are PDAs with GSM, and Apple's entry is very, very beautiful. It sports a large touchscreen, a lot of memory (with both 4G and 8G models), and that patented (literally) Apple touch.

While following the announcement, though, I had a feeling of deja vu all over again. Something about the description of the iPhone was strangely familiar.

The OpenMoko team have been working on a cell phone to be manufactured by First International Computers, Inc., the motherboard manufacturer. Using a GNU/Linux base, OpenMoko intends the NEO1973 to be both a proof-of-concept device, and a reference platform. The phone is almost completely open, using closed-source / proprietary subsystems only for the GSM/GPRS and AGPS (assisted GPS) components. The provided APIs to these subsystems allow for free software to make use of both the GPS and the telephony features of the phone.

Comparing Apple's iPhone to the NEO1973 is an interesting excersize. Aesthetically, the iPhone is slightly more stylish. The iPhone has more storage with 4G or 8G, versus the NEO1973's 64MB; however, the NEO1973 has a microSD slot, with which you can use 1G microSD cards. The iPhone has WiFi built in, whereas the first release of the NEO1973 will not. Also, the iPhone has a 2 Megapixel camera. The NEO1973 has no camera.

Here is a nice chart comparing the two.

The biggest difference between the two can't be easily summed up on a chart. It is this: the NEO1973 is an open platform. Not only is it amenable to free software, it is designed around the concept of free software. You may download software and install it to your heart's content. You may modify the source to that software. You may develop your own software for distribution. You may write games, GPS-aware applications, PIM software, media players, and phone applications. You may modify the installed software (except for the two proprietary subsystems) for any reason you desire.

The iPhone is locked down.

I don't know if the NEO1973 is any good. I'm not trying to sell the device. I intend to purchase one as soon as it becomes available. I intend to give first impressions, a description of the development process, and usefulness of the phone. With the overexcited announcement of the iPhone, I thought I'd take the time to point out a better option, an open option, an option that gives you the freedom we have come to expect.

An option that is US$150 cheaper, with no service provider contract required. An option that will be available in February.


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