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One of these things is not like the others!

30/08/2012 2 comments

Please look at the following picture:

These are “smart” phones I own.

All of them have different hardware specs, but one is truly different from the others.

Image of four smartphones

Can you tell which one?

 

 

 

 

 

It’s the one on the right – i-mate Jamin.

It is also the first “smart” phone that I ever owned.

 

What makes it different from the others?

The fact that it is the only one in the bunch that does not run on Free Software.

 

I was inspired to take this picture and put it on my blog by another post (in Hebrew), that talks about black, round corner rectangles and the recent madness surrounding them.

But I am not going to write about that.

There are already plenty of voices shouting about it all over the Internet, and I have nothing constructive to add.

Instead, I will introduce you to my lovely phone collection, which contributed a lot to my hobby and professional programming.

 

And we will start with the historical sample on the right: i-mate Jamin. (specs)

 

Back in early 2006, when this device came out, “smartphone” was still a registered trademark of Microsoft, the name they chose for the version of their Windows CE based mobile OS for devices with no touchscreen. (The touchscreen version was then called Windows Mobile Phone Edition)

Such devices were for geeks and hard core businessmen who had to be glued to their office 24/7.

 

But despite having a proprietery OS, this was a very open device: you could run any program on it (we didn’t call them “apps” then), and you could develop for them without the need to register or pay.

It didn’t matter what country you were from, or how old you were. The complete set of tools was available as a free download from Microsoft’s site.

And the OS allowed you to do a lot of things to it: like its desktop cousin, it completely lacked security, you could even overwrite, or more precisely “overshadow” OS files that were in ROM with a copy with the same name stored in user accessible NAND flash (or RAM on older devices).

 

The system API was almost identical to the Win32 API, which was (and still is) very common on the desktop, so if you knew how to write a program for your Windows powered PC, you knew how to write a program for your phone.

Unlike the systems we are used to today, Windows Mobile had no built in store.

You were on your own when it came to distributing your software, though there were several sites that acted much like the application stores do today: they sold your program for a commission.

But that too meant freedom: no commercial company was dictating morals to the developers or telling them that their program had no right to exist because it “confused users” or simply competed with that company’s own product.

So even though the OS brought with it most of the diseases common to desktop versions of Windows, it gave developers a free range, and thus had a thriving software ecosystem, until MS killed it off in a futile attempt to compete with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android by taking the worst aspects of both.

 

The second phone from the right is the Neo 1973.

It was so named because 1973 was the year the first cellular call was made.

 

I got this device in 2008. By that time, I learned a lot about software freedom, so when I heard about a completely free (as in freedom of speech) phone, I just had to have it.

It wasn’t easy: it could only be bough directly from the company, which meant international shipping and a lot of bureaucracy with the ministry of communication that required special approval over every imported cellphone.

I was particularly concerned because this was not a commercially available model, despite having FCC certification, so it was possible that I could not get it through customs as a private citizen.

In the end, the problem was solved, though not before customs fees and added UPS charges almost doubled the cost of the device.

 

It felt great to have it. I never had such complete freedom with a phone before.

But then I realized – I had no idea what to do with this freedom! Developing for the OpenMoko Linux distribution (later, the project switched to SHR) was very different from developing for Windows.

I had a lot to learn, and in the end, I wound up making only one usable program for my two Neo phones: the screen rotate.

 

One of the things that amazed me about the OpenMoko project was, that even though the software and hardware were experimental and in early stage of development, in many ways they were much better then the commercial Windows Mobile that was being sold for years to many phone makers.

For example, OpenMoko had perfect BiDi support needed for Hebrew and Arabic languages, as well as fonts for those languages shipped with the OS.

This is something MS never did for Windows Mobile, despite having a large R&D center in Israel for almost two decades, and having a large market in other countries that write right-to-left languages.

 

Also, the Internet browser, though slow, was much more advanced then the one on WM, and even came close to passing the Asid2 test.

 

The only trouble was, I could never get the microphone working. It didn’t really matter, since I wanted the phone for development and testing, and didn’t intend to carry it around with me for daily use.

 

Which brings us to the next phone in the collection: the Neo Freerunner.

This was the second device from the OpenMoko project, the more powerful successor to the Neo 1973.

 

At first, I swore I would not by it. There just wasn’t enough difference between it and the original. Sure, it had WiFi and a faster processor, but is that really a reason to by another phone?

But by that time, my trusty old Jamin was getting really old, it developed some hardware problems and even with a new battery would not charge well.

 

I had a lot of choice in smartphones, working for a company that developed software for them, yet I could not bare the thought of buying yet another non-free phone.

So in the end I broke, and bought the Freerunner, mostly for that nice feeling of carrying a tiny computer in my pocket, made completely with Free Software and Open Hardware.

Thanks to Doron Ofek who put a lot of effort in to advancing the OpenMoko project (and other Free Software projects) in Israel, getting the second device was much easier.

 

And so it became my primary and only cellphone for the next three years.

I don’t think there are too many people in the world who can honestly say they used OpenMoko phone as their primary cellphone, with no backup, but I was one of them.

Flashing a brand new OS twice a month or more (if I had time) was just part of the fun.

 

Sadly, all good things come to an end. The life expectancy of a smartphone is 18 month at best. I was seeing powerful Android based devices all around me, with large screens, fast processors, and, most importantly – 3G data (I spend a lot of time out of WiFi range).

And I wanted a stable device. As much as I hated to admit it I needed a break from living with a prototype phone and a rapidly changing OS.

But I wasn’t ready to loose my freedom. And I didn’t want to completely surrender my privacy.

Most Android devices need to be hacked just to get root on your own system. And even though the OS is Free Software, most of the “apps”, including built in ones, are proprietery.

And of course, Google is trying to milk every last bit of your personal information it can, and trying to keep them from doing it on Android is very uncomfortable, though definitely possible.

 

This just won’t do.

 

Finally, I found a perfect compromise:

My current phone – Nokia N900 (spec).

 

It was far from being a new device, when I finally ordered one thorough eBay.

It had a major downside compared to any Android device – it had a resistive instead of capacitive touchscreen.

 

Yet it was the perfect merger, borrowing from all worlds:

It runs mostly on free software, with a real GNU/Linux distribution under the hood, unlike Android which uses a modified Linux kernel, but has little in common with what most people call “Linux”.

It has a proper package manager, offering a decent selection of free software, and updates for all system components including special kernels, but also connected to Nokia’s OVI store.

It even came with a terminal emulator already installed.

 

Unlike the OpemMoko project, this was a finished and polished device. With a stable, simple, useful and convenient interface, widgets, and all applications working satisfactory out of the box.

It even has the flash plugin, which, though a horrible piece of proprietery software on which grave I will gladly dance, is still needed sometimes to access some sites.

 

So here I am now, with an outdated, but perfectly usable phone, that can do just about anything from connecting USB peripherals to mounting NFS shares.

It is perfect for me, despite it’s slightly bulky size and relatively small 3.5 inch screen.

 

But I know that no phone lasts for ever. Some day, the N900 will have to be retired, yet I see no successor on the horizon.

With Microsoft and Apple competing in “who can take away most user rights and get away with it”, and Android devices still containing plenty of locks, restrictions and privacy issues, I don’t know what I will buy when the time comes.

Who knows, maybe with luck and a lot of effort by some very smart people, the GTA04 will blossom in to something usable on a daily basis.

Or maybe Intel will get off their collective behinds and put out a phone with whatever Meego/Maemo/Moblin has morphed in to.

Even Mozilla is pushing out a Mobile OS of sorts, so who knows…

 

What do you think?

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