Michael 'Mickey' Lauer, platform architect of OpenMoko, is talking to Robert Schuster about the ideas behind the project, new approaches in the Neo Freerunner phone's software and hardware design and about OpenMoko being an open source role model in Taiwan.
Produced by Mario Behling // Interview Robert Schuster
Robert: Mickey, what is OpenMoko?
Mickey: In a nutshell OpenMoko is the first real open source mobile communications platform. It is as simple as that. So what does that mean? It is a communication of open software and open hardware. Open software means we have a full mobile communication stack beginning from bootloader, over sysinit. We have a GSM phone server. We have applications.This is one crucial part, everyone can tinker with that, can change parts with that or everything, if he or she wants. But that is not everything. The other side is Open Hardware. Even if you have a full stack, where is the hardware, where you can actually flash that stack and run it. Most manufacturers just give out closed hardware. That means you can at maximum install a Java applet or something like that. But that is it. On OpenMoko you can install everything you want. It is open. We actually encourage to replace our software stack if you want to. This is experimentation at its best. We are trying to give power to the developer people.
Robert: What are the benefits for the user with this approach?
Mikey: Well, for the user, typically if you want to have newer software, you need to buy a new phone. Usually you can't update a phone and expect to have additional features. But with the Neophone it is completely different. You can install additional packages, you can install complete new operating systems, if you want that. So, the idea is, that ones we give power to the developers, they come up with really exciting applications. They can do nowhere else. Then typical users start to say: “Oh, this is a nice application. I want to have that device, because it does not run anywhere else.” So, this is how we think, we can sell a lot of devices eventually, even to end users.
Openmoko is a project which encompasses two related sub-projects, with the combined aim of creating a family of open source mobile phones. The project was founded by FIC. The first sub-project is Openmoko Linux, an open source Linux based operating system designed for mobile phones, built using free software. The second sub-project is the development of hardware devices on which Openmoko Linux runs. The first device released was the inconsistently-named Neo 1973 or Neo1973, which was followed up by the Neo Freerunner on the 25th of June 2008. Unlike most other mobile phone platforms, these phones are designed to provide end users with the ability to modify the operating system and software stack. Other Openmoko supported phones are listed here. (Version 4 July 2008, at 16:52, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Openmoko)
Robert: And how are you involved in the OpenMoko project? What is your role in this project?
Mickey: I'm the platform architect. My current task is to work on the OpenMoko framework which is a set of middleware services, that allow our developers to use telephony, to use preferences, to use the pimp storage, things like that. So, I am trying to extract platform services out of our product specs and come up with a durable platform where developers have an idea what they can rely on – which services. And then we try to factor these platform things back into the actual products.
Robert: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to have the OpenMoko software on more telephones, on more mobile phones or just your devices?
Mickey: Actually, OpenMoko as a software is kind of designed in a generic way. We would really love to have OpenMoko running on – say the EZX devices of Motorola, say the HTC devices, where some guys came up with a Linux port. I think it is really good for the platform if it spreads out well. This is really good for us that people know, OpenMoko runs on a lot of platforms. However, at the end of the day OpenMoko as a company wants to sell devices. So, of course OpenMoko is optimized to run on a Neo platform.
Mickey: Yeah, I have to admit, we had a lot of problems getting the bread and butter features right. Actually placing a phone call was really, really hard. It was harder than we estimated. This is a framework testing image and I use it to just concentrate on basic features. Now we can place calls, we can dial a number. It is completely reliable nowadays. The modem no longer hangs up. We can send sms. We have contacts, we have GPS location and this is what people really expect. It is just the barebones features, however, these are reliable now. And from now on, there we can go like implementing a guitar tuner, implementing a web server in your hand, implementing all kinds of strange things people want to do that they just cant do on a closed source system. And the beauty of that is, you have full VGA resolution. It is 285 ppy. It is the highest resolution you can buy at this point of time. It is very slick. It has a nice touchscreen. We have embedded two LEDs behind the buttons, one red color LED and one multi color LED behind the power button. It is a nice design.
Robert: I have not seen any connector for a charger. How do we charge the phone?
Mickey: Usually people supply wall chargers and everyone is incompatible with another one. We said no. We don't want that. There is a standard nowadays. It is called USB and USB provides power. So this USB plug we have here is a standard mini USB plug. It is used for both data transfer as well as charging. You always have your charger with you, if you have a laptop with you or we of course supply a wall charger with a USB plug.
Robert: This is very handy. You do not need an extra plug.
Robert: We now come to a completely different topic. How is it work at OpenMoko? Where is it located? How many people are you?
Mickey: Well, OpenMoko is different to what I am being used to. Being a Taiwanese based company you have a completely different culture. Usually I am like two or three times in Taiwan every year and they have a lot of really smart people there. OpenMoko Inc. is like 60 or 70 people – 30 hardware people, 30 software people and 10 for administrative tasks. It's great. It's different, they are all very shy and they are very modest and you need to encourage them to come all by themselves to say: “No, I don't like that.” or “I have a better idea.” It is really challenging when you are used to work with European guys, who are more self-esteemed. But it is an interesting environment. OpenMoko is actually trying to be a kind of a role model in Taiwan, because usually you don't have any open source companies in Taiwan. OpenMoko tries to establish a kind of an open source culture in Taiwan and it is exciting to be a part of that.
Robert: Thank you for your answers Mickey and good luck for your project.
Mickey: Thank you.
– Michael 'Mickey' Lauer http://www.vanille-media.de , Wiki profile http://wiki.openmoko.org/wiki/User:Mickey
– Robert Schuster http://www.fsfe.org/en/fellows/robertschuster/weblog
– OpenMoko www.openmoko.com
– OpenMoko Wiki http://wiki.openmoko.org
– OpenMoko Blogs http://planet.openmoko.org