Neo1973: long-distance contender to Apple and Google?
Inside the mobile matrix, part 1
If you're a developer working with mobile devices few decisions will be more critical than the platform you choose to focus on. With the correct choice, your skills and creativity may pay off both financially and personally when thousands of users enjoy something that you brought into the world.
This being the month of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada and Macworld in San Francisco, California, I’ve looked at three devices/development platforms that have tweaked developers’ interest: OpenMoko's Neo1973, Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone. I will look at the strengths and weaknesses of each, to help developers decide which platform to adopt.
My first overview focuses on the Neo1973, the oldest of this trio enjoying renewed attention  thanks to the hubbub surrounding Android and the iPhone.
First, some context. In order to make comparisons among these fairly diverse platforms, two of which are mainly device specific with the third being a more generalized operating system said to work across multiple devices, we needed some common criteria.
This process was complicated by the fact that virtually all of the information about the iPhone SDK and Android are based upon presentations, demos, documents and hearsay. With no hands on development time with the forthcoming iPhone SDK and with the first Android-powered phone release not expected until the second half of 2008 you might wonder how I can possibly do a review, let alone make recommendations.
The key is the questions asked. Instead of focusing on the nuances of each environment, I thought it more valuable to look at the factors that determine what a programmer can do with each device and how likely it is that the finished code will become sufficiently popular to have made your development efforts worthwhile.
Here, then, I shall examine the following:
- How big is the installed user base for the device or platform
- Does the platform limit you to a single device or can the code be easily ported to other devices
- What are the license terms and do they offer sufficient flexibility to be creative while allowing you to retain a reasonable interest in the work you've done
- How adventurous is the community that uses the platform or device
- How confident are we that this device or platform will be around for at least a few years
Is Neo the one?
The Neo1973 is named after the year when the first mobile call was made, and is designed to run OpenMoko.
Some people have compared the Neo1973/OpenMoko project with Nokia's Maemo/internet tablet initiative. Big differences exist, however. Starting with the fact that the Nokia device is a tablet only (it does not have GSM or CDMA capability), and extending right to the actual creation of the devices themselves. According to Nokia's vice president of convergence products multimedia Ari Virtanen "the N810 as well as its predecessors, the N800 and the 770 Internet Tablet are the only devices ever developed to be internet native from the ground up."
This is quite a contrast to the Neo1973, which started life as a Windows Mobile device built by Chinese mobile manufacturer FIC. In other words, this device is not a Linux-specific phone built from the ground up with an open architecture in mind; far from it. While Linux does handle the device's phone specific operations, Daniel Dilger of RoughlyDrafted.com  eloquently describes it as a "small handheld computer connected to a GSM phone interface via a serial port". Ouch.
Does this mean that the Neo1973/OpenMoko is all hype? I'd have to say the jury is out but it does remain a possibility, even as new capabilities  find their way into a growing family of devices.
Going back to our key questions, a few facts emerge that are telling in their own right.
Clearly there's not a big installed base right now. Further, it doesn't seem likely that this platform will be the beneficiary of any big marketing push from a Western (or even Far Eastern) company. Thus the number of units in circulation is likely to remain fairly small - not what you really want to hear if you hope to make money off your development efforts.
The license terms are very open but a significant portion of the operating system - the part that runs the GSM/GPRS module - is a proprietary operating system called Nucleus, which is bad news for the developer that wants access to the full code base.
It is likely that the core group of users and developers that migrate to this phone will be passionate and adventurous, but it is unlikely that there will be enough of them to make this platform financially rewarding. Further with other more attractive options on the horizon, the Neo1073/OpenMoko platform could be a relatively short-lived device, making it all that much more risky an intellectual investment.
The bottom line: there are better options coming down the road in short order. I'll be reporting on two of them, Android and the iPhone in subsequent installments of this series.®