Many LinuxInsider readers are probably familiar with, or at least aware of, OpenMoko’s FreeRunner — the new Linux-based cell phone. This smartphone uses the Linux kernel along with various other free and open source software packages, including X.org Server with Matchbox window manager. These tools will be familiar to users of the original OpenMoko developer’s phone that came out last summer, the Neo1973, or the OLPC XO-1 laptop before it ran Windows XP.
This phone is so open source that you can get scans of the hardware off the Web site, but OpenMoko is just the tip of the iceberg.
Whereas most of the world was conscripted to Microsoft products through top-down bureaucracies, Linux is reaching the marketplace organically through the channel that is most common to people throughout the world: their mobile phones. With Nokia porting Trolltech’s Qt to Maemo and Verizon choosing LiMo in its effort to compete against the iPhone, it’s looking like we’re imminently facing LUG meeting show-and-tells.
Speaking of the iPhone, the member roster of theLiMo Foundation is really just a list of companies that either want to compete with Apple or AT&T, or are jaded Microsoft vendors (I’m looking at you, McAfee).
A cursory Google search suggests about 20 percent of all mobile users will have Linux-based phones by 2013. By the end of 2007, we already had 3.3 billion mobile phone users on the planet, meaning about one phone for every two people worldwide. Practically speaking, most adults in digital societies have mobile phones, so one in five running Linux is huge. People are now getting Linux on their phones because some of the people who know the score have managed to convince some of the people that call the shots to act rationally.
Fortunately, progress will happen with or without the corporate shot-callers, so this isn’t the sort of scenario that requires whining to a turtleneck overlord. With Linux, we are empowered — so long as we release our code. Actually, speaking of releasing code, even the phone from OpenMoko, which releases its hardware diagrams, uses GTK+ so that software vendors can write proprietary software to sell. I imagine we’ll see blogs in the near future about people not getting what they expected, and flamewars over how to package software to monetize it while not being obnoxious to users, and I look forward to that future.
What makes Linux far superior to Microsoft’s mobile software is that you can have different permutations of Linux smartphones. Historically — and presently, for many of us — smartphones are mostly pretty limited in scope. The software on them is abysmal; I can’t even SSH into mine. And don’t even get me started on the user interface of my Razr.
Ironing Out the Kinks
One of the greatest things about free and open source software — and even peripheral proprietary software to a lesser extent — is that, to quote the old saw, “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are superficial.” When it comes to user interface, your company can never test it as rigorously as well as the general public with its misuses and special cases. Given that you can work your business model around that, shouldn’t you?
The iPhone raised the bar of expectations and demands of mobile phone users. The days of Windows Mobile are numbered, and they will run out far sooner than Microsoft’s days dominating the desktop market, because more people have decision-making power over their handheld device preference than over their office operating system preference. As opposed to the top-down method of takeover that Microsoft employed in the 1990s business world, the successful model for today entails reaching people where they want to be rather than where they have to be.
Inevitably, this approach will lead to a sustainable long-term infiltration of many more market segments; after all, it’s the lack of user comfort with Linux that’s supposedly keeping hardware manufacturers and software developers away from Linux-based systems.
When enough Linux-based phones have pervaded the mobile phone market, savvy users will abound in workplaces where “whether to port to Linux or not” decisions are made. The decision will more likely be yes if enough users are already personally familiar with Linux-based handsets. Instead of operating system dominance trickling down from one super-monolithic corporation, it will trickle up from the grassroots.
Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, “Hackett and Bankwell.”