Linked by Thom Holwerda on Mon 24th Jul 2017 23:22 UTC
PDAs, Cellphones, Wireless

Michael Lauer, employee #2 at OpenMoko, has written a detailed article about the project and its eventual demise.

For the 10th anniversary since the legendary OpenMoko announcement at the "Open Source in Mobile" (7th of November 2006 in Amsterdam), I've been meaning to write an anthology or - as Paul Fertser suggested on #openmoko-cdevel - an obituary. I've been thinking about objectively describing the motivation, the momentum, how it all began and - sadly - ended. I did even plan to include interviews with Sean, Harald, Werner, and some of the other veterans. But as with oh so many projects of (too) wide scope this would probably never be completed.

As November 2016 passed without any progress, I decided to do something different instead. Something way more limited in scope, but something I can actually finish. My subjective view of the project, my participation, and what I think is left behind: My story, as OpenMoko employee #2. On top of that you will see a bunch of previously unreleased photos (bear with me, I'm not a good photographer and the camera sucked as well).

Mr. Lauer ends the article on a sad but entirely true note:

Right now my main occupation is writing software for Apple's platforms - and while it's nice to work on apps using a massive set of luxury frameworks and APIs, you're locked and sandboxed within the software layers Apple allows you. I'd love to be able to work on an open source Linux-based middleware again.

However, the sad truth is that it looks like there is no business case anymore for a truly open platform based on custom-designed hardware, since people refuse to spend extra money for tweakability, freedom, and security. Despite us living in times where privacy is massively endangered.

If anyone out there thinks different and plans a project, please holler and get me on board!

We'd all love such a project to succeed.

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postmarketOS
by Pro-Competition on Tue 25th Jul 2017 02:09 UTC
Pro-Competition
Member since:
2007-08-20

We just had a recent article about "postmarketOS" ( http://www.osnews.com/story/29834/postmarketOS_aiming_for_a_10_year... ), and according to the latest blog post, they have made good progress even since then:

https://ollieparanoid.github.io/

Reply Score: 3

Comment Title
by Dr.Cyber on Tue 25th Jul 2017 09:53 UTC
Dr.Cyber
Member since:
2017-06-17

I bought and used the Neo Freerunner a few years ago and it's pretty neat!

Reply Score: 2

3rd party viability
by Alfman on Tue 25th Jul 2017 13:02 UTC
Alfman
Member since:
2011-01-28

During the early IBM PC clone years, hardware manufacturers were deliberately trying to be compatible with each other and they would publish specs because they wanted to encourage developers to support them. This meant that 3rd party/hobby operating system developers could realistically find themselves on the same footing with the big fish with regards to hardware compatibility.

Some teams might try to mimic linux's path to success, but I think that road is closed. Today the industry is dominated by proprietary hardware and drivers. Supporting widespread hardware is just futile without an army of coders (ie linux). With mobile, be it incidental or by design (?), the situation is even worse than PC because everything is a proprietary mess. Without an ABI we can't even upgrade linux on a phone that originally ran linux.



For two more years, I continued to work on FSO in my spare time, trying to find an alternative hardware reference platform to run on, but nothing convincing showed up. All reverse-engineering-based efforts to replace other operating systems with our stack failed due to the short hardware life-time.

When I dropped out in June 2011 due to the birth of my daughter Lara-Marie, those projects more or less came to a full stop.




Alas, this concludes the positive aspects though. I wished that we could have left a bigger footprint in history, but as things stand, the mobile soft- and hardware landscape in 2017 is way more closed than it was ten years ago. I really had hoped for the opposite. Many projects we started are now either obsolete or on hiatus, waiting (forever?) for an open hardware platform to run on. However, they are still there and could be revived, if there was enough interest.



Though it makes me sad, I agree with the author, the hardware situation is not amenable to 3rd party devs. The long term consequence of this is severe consolidation with virtually full control over platforms and innovation going to the very top ;)

Reply Score: 4

RE: 3rd party viability
by kwan_e on Tue 25th Jul 2017 13:14 UTC in reply to "3rd party viability"
kwan_e Member since:
2007-02-18

Today the industry is dominated by proprietary hardware and drivers. Supporting widespread hardware is just futile without an army of coders (ie linux). With mobile, be it incidental or by design (?), the situation is even worse than PC because everything is a proprietary mess. Without an ABI we can't even upgrade linux on a phone that originally ran linux.


I think the only thing that can get out of this mess is the ability to cheaply fabricate the hardware we want so those of us inclined can simply write for (and debug and fix) our own hardware designs. But this is unlikely to happen for a long time.

Reply Score: 2

RE[2]: 3rd party viability
by Kochise on Tue 25th Jul 2017 13:35 UTC in reply to "RE: 3rd party viability"
Kochise Member since:
2006-03-03

FPGA are getting better these days. A good alternative would be some board like the Parallela. Intel tried something similar with the Larrabee architecture.

We cannot afford too disparate hardware ecosystem, otherwise the cost or development and maintenance would again fall into the 90's flaws with various computers with basically the same CPU (68k, x86) but with many non compatible systems.

Reply Score: 2

RE[3]: 3rd party viability
by kwan_e on Tue 25th Jul 2017 14:35 UTC in reply to "RE[2]: 3rd party viability"
kwan_e Member since:
2007-02-18

We cannot afford too disparate hardware ecosystem, otherwise the cost or development and maintenance would again fall into the 90's flaws with various computers with basically the same CPU (68k, x86) but with many non compatible systems.


I think it isn't comparable, because in the 90's the hardware ecosystem was a large barrier to entry. I think with the ability to make cheaper custom hardware the community could actually be able to consolidate around fewer designs more quickly.

Imagine a kernel and OS being developed in an interwoven fashion with the hardware. They would be designed and implemented to each other's strengths, and being incompatible would work against them. ie, it would be in the interest of developers to make things even more compatible.

As long as the licences are share and share alike, of course.

Reply Score: 2

Castles over ice...
by dionicio on Tue 25th Jul 2017 13:52 UTC
dionicio
Member since:
2006-07-12

"... it looks like there is no business case anymore for a truly open platform based on custom-designed hardware..."

Not only Custom-designed, but closed hardware at general is no longer the right foundation for TRULY open platforms, Michael.

Edited 2017-07-25 14:01 UTC

Reply Score: 2

Self-important doesn't mean Important
by Odwalla on Tue 25th Jul 2017 13:59 UTC
Odwalla
Member since:
2006-02-01

"For the 10th anniversary since the legendary OpenMoko announcement..." (emphasis mine)

Word count to hyperbole = seven. How was this announcement "legendary"? Where was it covered, what corners of collectively went, "WHOA"? What industries immediately felt threatened and disrupted by the presence of a mere announcement?

The implication that the project failed only because people were unwilling to pay a bit more is intentionally hiding the real truth. People are, rightfully, resistant to paying a higher price for a product that isn't as good as its competitors. That isn't a fault with the consumer.

Reply Score: 0

dionicio Member since:
2006-07-12

"People are, rightfully, resistant to paying a higher price for a product that isn't as good as its competitors."

Heard about this philosophy formerly from Toyota. Essentially goes like this:

IF Your paying market doesn't value that feature or expense, THEN is doesn't have VALUE.

Fundamentally wrong. Many of our MOST CRITICAL problems at IT can be related to this lack of PROFESSIONALISM.

(Market "asked" for cladding with plastic filling, just one example , stick all the yellow warnings you like, will be miss-used).

Edited 2017-07-25 14:26 UTC

Reply Score: 2

mkone Member since:
2006-03-14

It is self evidently true that if no one will pay x amount for something, then it may well be that thing is not worth that much.

With smartphones, this is quite clear. The market is not clamoring for infinite configurability. Most people want a phone they can pick up, browse the internet, send messages with and download their favorite apps.

Being able to code on a smartphone is not a feature most want and unsurprisingly, no high end phone promotes that as a feature.

So what you think is rubbish is straightforward economics.

Reply Score: 1

dionicio Member since:
2006-07-12

Not Economics, mkone. This is Politics.

Reply Score: 3

Odwalla Member since:
2006-02-01

Politics? Please do explain how you believe an over priced, poorly marketed, oddly designed cell phone didn't sell because of politics. Please use full sentences and clear thoughts. I don't ask that to be condescending. It's just that your previous post about Toyota, plastic cladding, and yellow stickers was incomplete to the point of incomprehensibility.

If a product doesn't have one or more features consumers wnat or if a product is equal in features to what consumers desire but has a higher price they won't pay for it. That is economics.

Reply Score: 1

dionicio Member since:
2006-07-12

Market profiling is politics. OpenMoko went out because the rug was pulled out.

[No problem with hyperbole. Psyche of this Industry].

Reply Score: 2

dionicio Member since:
2006-07-12

Once Android is split OpenMoko could have a [brand new] chance, again. But -alas- same as Linux, will always be secondary niche. Hopeful Alphabet keep this open code spirit.

A culture of diversity have diverse needs [that hegemonic actors can't cover]. Openness always welcomed.

Reply Score: 2

Where the action is...
by fretinator on Tue 25th Jul 2017 14:08 UTC
fretinator
Member since:
2005-07-06

I think the open, tinker-friendly stuff is in the Single-board Computer (SBC) world. I hate phones, and will be glad when they go away. All I need is a portable internet device. Even now, you can add a sim to one of these little guys, pop on a 5-inch LCD and you're ready to go. It's the whole "carrier" system that is locked down. If all you are using is data, everything opens up, and there is a multitude of ways to make voice and video calls if that is your thing. Imagine the advances in miniaturization and 3D printing and the sky is the limit.

Reply Score: 2

RE: Where the action is...
by Pro-Competition on Wed 26th Jul 2017 19:05 UTC in reply to "Where the action is..."
Pro-Competition Member since:
2007-08-20

I agree that this is probably the best way forward.

Since the most proprietary parts of the device are the phone radios, we just need to give up on controlling those for the near future. The idea is to separate the "smart" parts into their own device, have a "dumb" phone for mobile data connectivity only, and use a securable connection (e.g. WiFi, Bluetooth, USB) to connect the two.

This way we could have completely open hardware and software on the "smart" device, and encrypt all traffic before it gets to the proprietary device. This wouldn't solve all the problems, but it would solve the problems where the firmware can peek at memory, misuse traffic data, or even inject unsafe code into the "smart" processor.

Despite having to carry the "dumb" device around, it would always stay in the pocket, so it shouldn't be too much of a burden.

Reply Score: 3

jgfenix
Member since:
2006-05-25

... but the strategic ones
"I think we should have limited our software-contributions to a kernel, FSO, and a monolithic application that would have covered voice & messages and super stable day2day operation."

Wrong. Why would anyone buy a smartphone or a PDA? For the apps. The problem is that they didn´t make use of the existing open source software to their advantage and let people notice it. There were tons of existing Linux desktop and server applications. For example, port VLC or Abiword, Gnumeric, Gedit, etc. Let people know that there were TONS OF FREE APPS.

Reply Score: 3

darknexus Member since:
2008-07-15

Oh, please. Less than 1% of people want any of those apps even on a computer, with the major exception of VLC. They don't want Abiword or Gnumeric, they want Word and Excel. Half-compatible is not good enough and wouldn't have been even back when Openmoko began; how well have any of these, or OpenOffice, done at actually replacing their Microsoft equivalents in the workplace since?
I think they author's mostly right in his analysis of their strategic errors. You don't ever have "important" apps if you don't have a stable platform on which to develop and run them. A lesson, I see, that the desktop Linux crowd still, to this day, has not learned.

Reply Score: 2