Friday, January 12, 2007

A new kind of phone

A very exciting new device is on its way -- a mobile phone with just two buttons, and an enormous touchscreen with VGA (480x640) resolution. The touchscreen dynamically shows buttons relevant to the application, so you can go from a phone dialer to PDA-like functions seamlessly. It also includes a GPS chip, GPRS (2.5G), bluetooth, and other essential stuff. Meanwhile, under the hood, it's a computer running a Unix-like operating system.

And it's not Apple's iPhone. In fact, it's everything the iPhone is not. It's the FIC Neo1973 Smartphone, running OpenMoko.

The presentation explains the idea. The phone will have only three features out of the box: calling, sending SMS, and "apt-get install". In other words, you can install what other applications you like -- it's an open development platform based on Linux.

In contrast, the much hyped iPhone

  • will only work with designated carriers (Cingular in the US, who knows when the thing will come to India)
  • won't let you install third-party software
  • won't let you sync with your computer wirelessly via Bluetooth or WiFi
  • Has a built-in battery that you can't replace yourself

(The net has longer lists of complaints, though I see some of them as advantages.)

With the iPhone, Steve Jobs has made one of the world's smallest computers (it runs Mac OS X, which is Unix under the hood!) and claims it is not a computer (he even used the occasion to remove "computer" from Apple Computer's name). He further claims that "You don't want your phone to be like a PC. The last thing you want is to have loaded three apps on your phone and then you go to make a call and it doesn't work anymore..."

Well, my PC does not run Windows (and nor, I imagine, does Steve's Macbook), so installing applications doesn't cause anything to "not work anymore". And when I pay $499 to $599 for a device running a form of Unix, I would like to think of it as a computer, and be able to customise it -- ideally, program it, but at the very minimum, install what applications I want. But no doubt I don't constitute Steve Jobs' main market.

However, I am looking forward to the OpenMoko phone.

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