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Q&A: Building a new open-source phone platform

By Tom Henderson,
January 09, 2007 04:59 PM ET - Sean Moss-Pultz is a hacker with a simple vision: A non-aligned mobile phone platform that's a growing medium for diverse, yet simply formed applications. OpenMoko's mobile platform is scheduled to enter the marketplace in late Q1 in a super-crowded, yet super-heated mobile market. There are already open-platform phones from the major vendors, albeit with developer programs that haven't been as successful as some would have hoped. An exception, Trolltech, announced Qtopia Greenphone at CES - a GSM/tri-band phone that's based on the Linux 2.4.19 kernel.

By contrast, OpenMoko adds integral GIS to the base platform, and have announced support for CDMA phones sometime in 2007. We interviewed Sean about OpenMoko:.

Why another open phone platform?

We're similar, but we're different. The calls that I get are about 20% saying, hey - that's a great idea, and the other 80% are from developers or engineers that say, you know, I've had this application stewing in the back of my brain, and I'm really psyched that there's a fully open, ground-up FOSS platform where I can control all of the bits.

So the developer community seems to take fancy to the design?

Oh yes. Part of the reason is that you can get to each of the elements of the phone, like the GPS system. Another organization wants to get control of the microphone, so that they sense ambient noise, and know to not ring the phone if it's in a noisy environment. It really seems to have stimulated a lot of imagination.

Do you need any specific expertise to get started developing for the phone?

It helps if you know gtk, and understand widgets. From there, it's pretty simple and open, with a bent towards gnome. We have all of the libs and an increasing body of working code to launch a pretty wide variety of development projects. Compiling and downloading to the phone is a pretty simple process.

Are you accessorizing?

The first one was obvious-a car kit to enable the GPS functionality. We're also working on a concept called the "Hacker's Lunch Box", a hardware 'breadboarding' system to allow people to get access electrically to all of the bits of the phone's hardware. This way, circuit cookers get right to the parts that they want to play with, and engineer. On the software level, the gtk/gnome supports easy cross compiling, so making a library of 'themes' gets to be really easy to code. Add in the gtk plus phone widgets, and customizing with digital accessories is also easy.

And the technical nitty-gritty?

Well, we use glibc rather than others. The specs are all out there, and if you need to, you can cross-compile down to the kernel if you'd like. It's a completely open platform in the Cathedral and Bazaar model, and developers should find it refreshing. Now it's up to use to get to work and deliver the 1G phones and get the 3G versions ready.

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