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Cellphones Handhelds Linux

Why Open Source Phones Still Fail 322

adeelarshad82 writes "Truly open-development, open-source phones like the Nokia N900 will never hit the mainstream in the US because wireless carriers in the country hate the unexpected, writes PCMag's Sascha Segan. The open-source philosophy is all about unexpected, disruptive ideas bubbling upwards, and that drives network planners nuts. So, you get unsatisfactory hybrids like Google Android, which uses some open-source components but locks third-party developers into a crippled Java sandbox. The bottom line is that while Linux the OS, the kernel, and the memory manager are attractive to phone manufacturers, Linux the philosophy — and users banding together ad hoc to create new things — is anathema to wireless carriers."
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Why Open Source Phones Still Fail

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  • by grasshoppa ( 657393 ) <skennedy@AAAtpno ... inus threevowels> on Friday December 04, 2009 @08:24PM (#30331176) Homepage

    because wireless carriers in the country hate the unexpected

    So does any network admin worth his salt. This isn't a failing of wireless carriers, it's not even a negative. I want them to be like this, this attitude makes me a happy customer. Think about the alternatives; a completely open platform which would allow a wireless consumer to do ANYTHING on the network, possibly disrupting other customers. Namely, disrupting ME.

    So no. Allow them to be cautious with their network, as long as they continue to provide decent service ( verizon, excellent network where I am ). I could stand lower costs, but that's not what this article is about.

  • by kurt555gs ( 309278 ) <kurt555gs&ovi,com> on Friday December 04, 2009 @08:25PM (#30331198) Homepage

    Whether or not the N900 reaches iPhone numbers is irrelevant to the fact that it will stand in computer history along with the Kaypro II, PDP-11, SORD IS-11, Altair 8080;

    I don't care if AT&T likes it or not.

    If you actually get your hands on one, you will understand that it feels good to actually own something, and not pay to carry the wireless equivalent of a cable box.

    If people in America were "customers" and actually were allowed to decided what they wanted, and not "consumers" to be culled by the wireless carriers, then the N900 would on it's merits be the best selling mobile computer of all times.

    Does anyone really like the fact that all you can get from the big wireless carriers is what they want you to have, and not what you want?

    Those that go out and buy an N900 will understand.

  • Re:Not really (Score:2, Interesting)

    by get_your_guns ( 1380583 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @08:35PM (#30331266)
    I agree with this Anonymous Coward that the radio controls for the actual communications are firewalled from any app writter. What I don't understand is why someone has not come out with a sidekick to the cellphone that runs on a compact linux box. I mean there are linux servers that are no bigger then an ac outlet, why not continue the idea and create apps on this sidekick that only use the bandwidth of the cellphone through a USB or bluetooth connection. I could see many different apps running on this sidekick with a IPod like touch screen that the carriers would not be able to control. The sidekick would be another thing to carry, but it would bypass this app approval from the cell phone carrier. But, I think every carrier is actively monitoring their data band to ensure apps are not running that conflict with their pay apps. Look at what problems google has had with offering voice in the data band of a cell phone. I get unlimited data from my carrier for less then unlimited voice plans. I can do conference calls and transfers and other features with the data side that the carrier charges for in the voice band.
  • Re:Oh for.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @08:42PM (#30331330)

    As always, follow the money.

    However, there's more to it than that. You should have said American wireless carriers. European wireless carriers don't get to play that game, nor do South American carriers, nor Asian carriers. So really the PCMag columnist is pretty myopic. The utterly bizarre wireless market that exists in the United States is nearly unique in the world, and the majority of the world's population lives somewhere else. Open source phones will do just fine because there are great big markets for them on every continent except North America. And since it's not like the Nokia N900 or any of its components are manufactured in the United States, the greedy graspy control freak US carriers can't affect it in the slightest.

  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @08:44PM (#30331348) Journal
    Open source phones will take off. They will take off when someone delivers a model that uses a mesh network to render the existing carriers obsolete, at which point most of the existing carriers will go out of business. Pretty obvious if you think about it.
  • Re:Wow (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TheSunborn ( 68004 ) <.tiller. .at.> on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:03PM (#30331512)

    They don't. You can write native code for Android phones. You just need a small java wrapper nothing more.

  • Re:Oh for.... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:08PM (#30331536)

    I am interested in your views and wish to subscribe to your newsletter. You speak of the US version of 'cellphone' as if it is different to the rest of the world's idea of 'cellphone', and as someone who resides in the rest of the world, I want to know these differences you speak of. What's so different about using a cellphone in the US? This is a genuine question.

  • by ShieldW0lf ( 601553 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:10PM (#30331550) Journal
    I was thinking something more along the lines of give the devices away for free and to hell with the FCC and the profit too...
  • Re:Too costly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Yrrebnarg ( 629526 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:30PM (#30331726)

    Here you go. A port-o-rotary [] for $200. They provide full source and schematics. You can even buy a 6000mAh battery to run the thing for weeks and you don't have to deal with any PDA functionality. Any more complaints?

    Radios are expensive. The only reason phones are cheap is because they're heavily subsidized or because they're a simple little phone produced a million at a time from a small handful of highly-integrated mixed analog/digital ASICs. "Open-source" devices are small-run devices with hopelessly obsolete radio hardware because it's all they can get documentation for and manufacturers aren't looking to release their secret sauce to just anybody.

    And on top of all of this, most of the open-source types are desktop or server programmers. On the desktop, you don't have to think about low-power code. Everything changes when you're running off a battery. There just isn't the expertise there (yet). Having said all this, I love my rooted T-mobile G1. I built a scratchbox environment for it and ported a few important CLI tools and it's now perfectly capable of being all the pocket Linux machine I need and it's not very difficult getting Debian running on top of the Android environment.

  • by Bluesman ( 104513 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:34PM (#30331748) Homepage

    Wireless bandwidth is extremely limited compared to a wired infrastructure.

    Not just a little bit, but many orders of magnitude more limited.

    Companies know exactly how much bandwidth will serve all of their users. If you'd like to read about the math behind it, it's here. [] The problem is that at peak times, network usage nears 100%, by design. The companies would be losing money if this weren't true.

  • by bertoelcon ( 1557907 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:40PM (#30331798)


    Get any sort of decent battery life out of a mesh network with no towers while still maintaining access to the PSTN and emergency services.

    If it isn't a "public" phone system but was more like a large voip network they might be able to find loopholes.

  • Re:So true (Score:3, Interesting)

    by WiseWeasel ( 92224 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:41PM (#30331808)

    On the Mac, the bumpers are removable, so the kids can eventually learn to play like the big boys at their leisure. The iPhone has them welded in place, requiring no small amount of effort to pry them loose.

  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:47PM (#30331848)
    I ranted on comp.os.linux.advocacy about all that for years, but but now I have realized that most people simply prefer the elegance and predictability of a walled garden to chaotic freedom. This explains everything from why mp3 players never became a mainstream phenomenon until the iPod came along, to why there are no direct democracies. Life is too short for individuals to make decisions on every little thing so they need integrated "solutions" that offer some level of control.
  • by WiseWeasel ( 92224 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @09:55PM (#30331894)

    One of the stipulations that Google managed to have placed in the FCC license for commercial 4G LTE spectrum is open device access, which is absent in current wireless spectrum licenses. They did this by getting approval for a clause that if a certain minimum bid for the spectrum was met, that that open device access rule would go into effect, then they bid that amount, and then proceeded to let Verizon outbid them, ensuring that clause would go into effect. Carriers may have been able to get away with this type of draconian control over their networks in the past, but it seems that's coming to an end with the shift to 4G LTE already underway. With this open device access regulation, actual user-accessible open source handsets may finally be able to see widespread use.

  • Re:Wow (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mzechner ( 1351799 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @10:08PM (#30331952)
    Android features it's own custom vm which is far behind the sun's vm. While the main gui stuff on android has to be done in java there's a very nice and easy to use native developement kit that allows you to write the performance critical portions of your code in c/c++ (with some limitations). As of NDK version 1.6 you can also access OpenGL directly, paving the way for truely performant 3D games. I could provide you with some links but i don't think they'd work with your brain anyways...
  • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <> on Friday December 04, 2009 @10:22PM (#30332032) Journal

    /puts of flame proof long johns/ You want to know why Linux hasn't had a snowball's chance in hell at retail? It is actually quite simple: You can't shop for Linux devices at Walmart without playing the paperweight roulette, which scares the living hell out of consumers!

    If you really want Linux to have that critical breakout, then get the heads of all the major distros together, have them shake the living hell out of Linus and the other kernel devs, and nobody is allowed to leave the building until an agreed upon standard is written and approved to where you can just put a "Linux 32/64" folder on the driver CD and be done with it!

    There are PLENTY of shops like mine who would LOVE to sell Linux machines, there are plenty of mainstream customers that could use Linux security, but I can't sell it and they won't buy it. Why? Because you can't answer these questions-which wireless USB cards on sale at Best Buy work in distro foo? Printer? Sound cards? Can you give me a 100% guarantee that my customers can shop at Walmart/Best Buy/Staples and have ZERO chance of getting a paperweight? You can't, because Linux and the driver situation is all fucked up. The kernel developers should be worried about the kernel and NOT maintaining fricking printer drivers!

    With Windows I can say "see this pretty little flag on the box? See how it says "certified for Windows 7"? Yeah, that's you. Just look for that and you are good". It takes a customer all of 5 seconds to look at the box and shop with confidence. same thing with OSX, just look for the little Apple and the "10.whatever" and if it lines up with what you got? Hooray, you're all set to go. With Linux you get the "fun" of trawling forums before you can even buy a damned thing (which if you believe mainstream customers are gonna research before purchase I got some swampland in AR to sell you) and Deity help you if the "driver" which usually needs some serious fricking tweaking and CLI foo to get going was written for firmware A and you got firmware F, because guess what? Enjoy your paperweight!

    Just make it simple guys. Remember KISS? Make it so hardware manufacturers can put Linux drivers on the CD and a penguin on the box without having to keep an assload of driver developers on hand just to try to keep up with the shifting sand that is Linux right now. Make it so ANY customer WITHOUT needing to do research or put in a metric crapload of CLI commands can simply walk into Best Buy and put a device in their cart and know 100% that it will work on Linux. If the "inferior" Windows and OSx can do that, then surely you guys can too...right?

  • Re:They don't fail (Score:3, Interesting)

    by cpscotti ( 1032676 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @10:26PM (#30332064)
    Fun thing is: the personal computer could be described exactly in that way some twenty years ago.
    What we should expect is that every happy geek realizes their responsibility (woa) in making software/proving that the n900 platform is better than any other.
    The n900/Maemo is the chance cool people (e.g. geeks) have to prove their point with support from a major player in the cell phone market. In some way (since it is all this "open"/"free"), if the n900 fails, the open source community/cool people/geeks are also failing.
    The article is right about it's historical background and all but lacks some optimism... hehe
  • That's not going to work terribly well when the FCC sends certain other government employees after you and those who operate these unlicensed devices. Unless, of course, you find the prospect of "two hots, a cot, and fending off dudes in the shower" appealing.
  • Re:Oh for.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by herojig ( 1625143 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @10:41PM (#30332116) Homepage
    You can go to any corner phone store, have a selection of hundreds of phones, and then pick a carrier sim card of your liking, and within seconds you are on your way making calls - that's what's really different. You have complete control over what you call/play with, what you pay per call, and you can change your mind in an instant. That's what is different about the USA and the rest of the world as Areyoukiddingme points out. Phones are "unlocked" (an Americanism) out of the box, and you are not breaking any laws or EULAs when you want to modify the phone. The American way of using phones is just pure insanity, and I don't understand why the people there put up with it. If they tried it here, people would be burning tires in the streets and burning down the parliament building.
  • Re:Oh for.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 04, 2009 @11:10PM (#30332210)

    I am an American who has lived in Asia and who has used GSM phones exclusively since my first mobile phone in the USA in 1997. While I did use several contract-subsidized phones, I made sure they were world-band phones and I got them "unlocked" by the carrier so I could use them overseas with different SIMs.

    Years before I left the USA, I started buying my "unlocked" phones over the Internet and just sticking my existing subscription SIM into them, just as you can in other countries. When I visited the USA, I bought a prepaid SIM for about $15, which included $10 of credits, and then put it in my phone which I had brought back from Asia. When I relocated, I did this again, to get a new local phone number in a different region (Los Angeles versus Chicago). I added cash value at the register in the telecom's stores, just like I did in malls in Asia, except when I bought scratch-off prepaid value cards in other discount stores, just like I could in Asia.

    I think some people confuse Verizon (CDMA) in the USA with the entire phone market, not realizing that consumers do have a choice of going with much the same mixture of GSM options you get in the rest of the world (except different radio frequencies). I've never had to pay the telecom provider to use features of my phone like bluetooth, or ringtones installed by USB cable, or even GPRS tethering (except of course data services I consume such as GPRS Internet access).

    The only thing I wish would happen is that the market demand fair pricing, so we can see reasonable network service charges like I saw in Asia: unlimited Internet, whether mobile browsing or tethered access, should cost about $30/month and be available unbundled from contracts. I could use a prepaid SIM to do this in Asia, simply deducting one day's, one week's, or one month's service fee from my balance to enable EDGE Internet service for that period of time.

  • by KibibyteBrain ( 1455987 ) on Friday December 04, 2009 @11:12PM (#30332220)
    Very insightful operation. A mesh network for cellular communications is impractical, we just do not have enough bandwidth to make it work and it would be impossible to regulate. And regulation of the spectrum is not a bunch of BS like other regulation, its a hard, physics rooted, necessity.
    Also, its not as simple as it sounds. It takes a team of engineers to monitor and place towers is a geographic region for a carrier. Adding one can actually make reception WORSE in some areas if you don't know what you are doing. So again, if we have crappy cell networks using engineered structured networks that cost billions of dollars to run just imagine what you'd get out of a peer to peer long range communications scheme.(hint, crap)
  • by PReDiToR ( 687141 ) on Saturday December 05, 2009 @02:03AM (#30333024) Homepage Journal
    In the UK we were using CB radios illegally for years.

    The government set rules that laid out the only legal channels (40 of them) and no shop was allowed to sell rigs that could receive/transmit on other channels.
    These 40 shitty channels were chosen to not fit with CBs sold anywhere else in the world.

    My first CB (20 years ago?) had 200 channels. Only 40 of them were legal, 40 more of them are now legal (the mid-band 40 that other countries use was added to the legal 40 giving 80 legal channels).

    So many people in my City alone had illegal rigs that the law was never enforced. I knew (and know) of nobody who was ever prosecuted for not having the £££ Ham Radio licence that permitted broadcast on those frequencies.

    I still have about 5 highly illegal rigs although I haven't used a CB in many years.

    If someone were to start the fire and Skype/FreeGSM/Mesh internet handsets were to be available to you and me, then someone somewhere (China? Russia?) would see it as profitable to make them available for £50. People I know are buying '3' handsets because the data plan is compatible with an always on Skype connection. £70 and they get a shit phone but free Skype. It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see that people would pay for something even if it wasn't legal and then to see that there would be so many people at it that the government would have to make it legal or hire more police.
  • You've just demonstrated the precise problem: the Linux kernel developers would rather maintain a set of ideals with which the vast majority of their users do not agree than provide a standard driver interface for Linux drivers that would leave them source-compatible or binary-compatible between different versions of the Linux kernel. They'd rather release kernel updates that break every third-party driver every so often to encourage driver and hardware developers to open-source their work in exchange for integration into the mainline kernel tree.

    Three separate attempts to create a portable standard for device drivers have already come and gone: the Uniform Driver Interface [] that started from the mainstream commercial Unix world, guaranteed source and binary compatibility of UDI drivers between OSs on one architecture, and died from pure politics; the Extensible Driver Interface [] (disclaimer: by me) that pandered to free software ideals by guaranteeing mere source compatibility but failed to gain a following in its tiny home community; and the Common Device Interface [] that has gained some currency in the German hobbyist OS-development community but has very little material available in English. If the Linux kernel developers went through these and picked any one of them to implement, it could not only increase the market share of Linux operating systems out in "the world" but serve the ideals of free, open software by giving to the OS research and hobbyist world a real, usable way to avoid the tedious drag of reimplementing device drivers for even the most primitive functionality on every single new OS.

  • by lordcorusa ( 591938 ) on Saturday December 05, 2009 @04:10AM (#30333438)

    Take it from someone who owned one: the OpenMoko was a terrible phone and a terrible handheld computer. It was nearly useless when not hooked up to a computer via SSH over USB. OpenMoko earned an A for vision in getting a fully open and documented hardware interface, although the results were dubious (crappy GPRS GSM modem in an era when 3G was just becoming popular, crappy non-accelerated drivers for the video chipset). However, OpenMoko's worst failing was the total inability of the company to push a singular stable and complete platform for development; there were about 20 different incompatible distributions in various states of disarray, and you cannot have a platform for end-user app development in that sort of environment. (Imagine how unsuccessful Apple's app store or Android's marketplace would be if developers and users had to choose between 20 different incompatible distributions, all in permanent alpha status...) I think I can live with a few proprietary blobs if it means having a useful device. All of the open technology in the world means nothing if the platform dies on the vine before ever taking off. OpenMoko's ideal of a fully open phone platform proved unsustainable, as the company canceled their "next-gen" (translation: 2.5G in an era of 3G) phone and switched to producing a ridiculous "WikiReader" device which contains no pesky radio or accelerated video modules.

    After more than a year of trying to use it, I finally was overjoyed to get rid of my crappy Freerunner. On the other hand, even though my N800 does not have a cell radio, I still like to use it, and am strongly considering buying an N900. I think the OpenMoko was for people who love putting together distributions and blogging about how much freer their device is compared to everyone elses'. A platform like the N800/900 is for people who like programming mobile computers to accomplish useful tasks and then distributing those programs to non-programmers.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 05, 2009 @04:33AM (#30333488)

    Whether or not the N900 reaches iPhone numbers is irrelevant to the fact that it will stand in computer history along with the Kaypro II, PDP-11, SORD IS-11, Altair 8080;

    I don't care if AT&T likes it or not.

    If you actually get your hands on one, you will understand that it feels good to actually own something, and not pay to carry the wireless equivalent of a cable box.

    If people in America were "customers" and actually were allowed to decided what they wanted, and not "consumers" to be culled by the wireless carriers, then the N900 would on it's merits be the best selling mobile computer of all times.

    Does anyone really like the fact that all you can get from the big wireless carriers is what they want you to have, and not what you want?

    Those that go out and buy an N900 will understand.

    Not really the first mobile computer with 3G that is completely open, technically:

    (There are tons of other MIDs out there, and much better ones on the horizon that are proper smart phones, but the S5 is the most popular one atm.)

  • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <> on Saturday December 05, 2009 @11:04AM (#30334964) Journal

    SCoN! = Source Code or Nothing! It is the militant wing of the FLOSS movement, that believes with a straight face and without a hint of doubt that THEIR way of doing things, even though it means honestly expecting users to have to trawl forums, pound CLI code or even "tweak" said CLI code, simply to get devices to "work" is the RIGHT way and the ONLY way things should be done, period. Even though it seriously hurts Linux and dooms it to a niche hobbyist OS, it doesn't matter as long as their ideology remains pure. It is politics, pure and simple, and as we have seen hardcore politics is NEVER good for the populace.

    And I hate to break it to those people but...News Flash...the companies that are gonna release their source already have, and the others don't want to play your little reindeer games. Look at the companies that HAVE released source, what do they have in common? IBM, AMD, Intel, HP, etc? They ALL have large patent warchests to fight off patent trolls, they ALL have either a large interest or desire a large portion of the Server/HPC market. That is NOTHING like the consumer device market. Not. At. All. The consumer market has lots of smaller players, with no patent warchests or giant teams of on retainer attorneys waiting to drop the hammer on patent trolls, and have no interest in the server/HPC marketplace. Is RMS gonna indemnify me if I release source code for my drivers and get hit with a 100 million dollar lawsuit by a patent troll? Didn't think so.

    These companies are NOT gonna release their source code, at least not now in this hostile climate, but what they WILL do is put drivers on CDs, and penguins on the boxes if you'll let them, because nobody like cutting off potential customers. And once Linux reaches critical mass (which I would say would be the 10-15% mark) THEN Linux can work to change the landscape, perhaps as another poster suggested and charge for WHQL testing and using the money to lobby and to buy up patents to offer a large patent warchest as an enticement to those that would like to release but fear lawsuits. But the current way things are done? Yeah, not gonna work. This is the age of plug and play, and the easy shopping for devices and the nice easy to use GUI. Why do you think Apple is a hit? Because it all "just works". Same with MSFT and just looking for the Winflag on the box.

    But expecting users in 2009 with a straight face to play paperweight roulette is just truly the height of arrogance and insanity. Nobody is gonna play that game, retailers like me won't sell your OS because of the support nightmare from hell that game causes, and the SCoN! brigade refuse to allow changes that would help us out of this quagmire. But unless this problem is fixed, unless the paperweight roulette is killed once and for all, mark my words: In 2019 we will STILL be talking about "next year is the year of the Linux desktop" while Apple and Windows total dominates the landscape and Linux is avoided by the masses and remains off retailers shelves. It really is that simple folks. No fat penguin on the box equals No Sale.

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly