Openmoko Steps Back, Re-evaluates Road Ahead
As news of Openmoko's harsh but realistic look at the road ahead ripples through the open source and mobile technology sectors, there will be, beyond a doubt, much speculation on how the project's challenges could have been minimized and its successes built upon. Perhaps Openmoko's attempt to bring a completely open mobile phone to the world was Quixotic. Perhaps it was a good idea that simply launched at a bad time. Perhaps it was (and still is) a very workable idea -- or maybe it will always have an extremely niche appeal. Openmoko's pulling away from FreeRunner phones (and looking toward its "Plan B") might well work out just as Michael Lauer writes on his blog -- not at all as a death sentence, nor as any sort of indication that free platforms don't work (or aren't desired) on mobile phones.
I think Lauer is spot on with his comment -- that free platforms, open hardware and infrastructure are in demand now, and that that demand will grow. The Openmoko phones -- the Neo FreeRunner and the Neo1973 -- weren't meant for average consumers. It'd be hard to even call them "early adopter" devices. They were, without question, development platforms, gadgets for developers to play with, deconstruct, reconstruct, and bend to their wills for educational reasons, for professional growth, to get away from the stresses of scripting utilitarian server applications and program something fun. These phones scratched a developer itch that Android, alas, doesn't seem open enough to soothe.
I think Openmoko's products and its philosophy for a truly open device was indeed Quixotic. I think it will one day be quite workable (though mass market appeal will require rough bits get smoothed out -- not sewn shut). It wasn't a bad idea to target such a niche market -- but it is, most certainly, a tough time to draw in even the most enthusiastic, sympathetic audiences.
In the meantime, freesmartphone.org plans to soldier forward as it did prior to Openmoko's financial backing, seeking out new sponsors, contributors, and branching out to support more devices. Though freesmartphone.org uses Openmoko devices for its reference platform (and plans to continue doing so) because of the completely open nature of its hardware, the project welcomes any developers who are interested in freeing closed devices. Openmoko's upcoming Openmoko 2009 operating system upgrade will support both Neo FreeRunner and Neo1973 devices, and, thanks to the wonders of open source, those who currently own (or would like to pick up) a FreeRunner can choose from several community distributions that support their hardware.
While it would be wonderful (and may come to pass) that OpenMoko can again one day direct its cash flow back into completely open platforms, hardware and infrastructure, this isn't the end by a long shot. If anything, this is a prime example of open platforms, and open devices, outliving (in a very significant way) the companies that created them. This is how it is supposed to work when these things happen -- this is precisely why it works.