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Open Phones with Open Moko

Can an open Linux phone platform change the mobile application game?

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While all eyes may have been on San Francisco and the launch of the developer-unfriendly Apple iPhone, the real game changers were demonstrating their strategy at CES 2007, in Las Vegas.

While the hardware may be similar, the strategy is a complete reversal of Apple's closed platform and proprietary hardware. OpenMoko is an open Linux-based mobile application development platform that's designed to help operators and developers build innovative applications on top of a basic phone platform.

That platform is the FIC neo1973, an attractive curved device with a single large VGA touch screen, and a built in GPS. While it's only GPRS, this is a first cut at delivering open hardware, so we can expect future hardware to support faster data connections.

Out of the box the FIC mobile phone has very few features. You can make calls, send text messages – and that's pretty much it. The hardware, however, is much more capable. Applications are handled in an open manner, with access to proprietary hardware functions – including location data and connectivity tools.

A set of core tools mean all applications can access finger and stylus information, with core libraries that offer UI and PIM access. Other libraries offer GSM and GPS support – so your applications can take advantage of both network and hardware features.

The philosophy behind OpenMoko is interesting – by providing capable hardware, with a good UI and basic software, the project intends to quickly build a library of available applications. Existing Linux code can be ported to OpenMoko, while an SDK means that existing development tools (and skills) can be used to create new phone-centric applications.

Like most Linux distributions OpenMoko includes an application manager tool, which can download both operator-approved or community software. It's the equivalent of apt-get for your phone, which will keep applications updated as well as providing a tool for finding new features. Advanced users can opt for community applications, while trusted operator-verified applications mean that you don't need to ride the bleeding edge.

Sean Moss-Pultz, the project's architect, expects the first samples of OpenMoko hardware to ship in March 2007. The SDK should be released at the same time, though you can sign up for early access here.

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