When Is A Phone Not A Phone? - InformationWeek
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Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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When Is A Phone Not A Phone?

When it's the OpenMoko, that's when. In fact, its own creators are hesitant to call it a phone, but that's been one of the easiest ways to get it into the public eye. Their plan isn't to compete with juggernauts like the iPhone, but to take a much earlier cue from Apple's playbook: the Apple I.

When it's the OpenMoko, that's when. In fact, its own creators are hesitant to call it a phone, but that's been one of the easiest ways to get it into the public eye. Their plan isn't to compete with juggernauts like the iPhone, but to take a much earlier cue from Apple's playbook: the Apple I.

The other day I spoke to Steve Mosher, VP of Marketing for the OpenMoko, a longtime presence in the industry who designed some of the first MP3 hardware for Creative Labs ("I've been competing with Apple for years," as he put it). One of the more striking things he said was how he didn't want to call the OpenMoko just a "phone", since it's neither designed nor marketed like any of its more mainline competitors -- especially not the iPhone.

"The best way to think about OpenMoko is to think about what Apple came from." By this he meant the original, almost primordial Apple, where their first market was the hobbyists who were looking to graduate from breadboarding in their basements to something a little more sophisticated. "We're doing to [Nokia and today's Apple] what Apple did to IBM back in the day. Guy Kawasaki is my hero." (In his youth, Steve not only opened up his dad's old TV set, but desoldered every single component from the mainboard. A man after my own heart.)

So how well is the new OpenMoko doing? "We're sold out." He couldn't give me exact numbers, but when their earlier model came into stock in July of 2007, they sold out the entire first run in three days. They tripled the production run this time around, and still ran out of stock in the same amount of time. "But for us in the beginning, the numbers don't matter," he admitted. "The traction in key markets matters, and it's traction in the developer market, traction in the education market, traction in vertical markets that you could never have imagined." This includes, for instance, creating a variety of the unit for archaeologists as an in-the-field data collector.

A good half of the requests for the OpenMoko are from universities, who use the device in embedded-design and open source programming courses. Steve also insisted on having open lesson plans and coursework -- "I looked at coursework like it was a piece of code" -- so the overall flavor is less that of doing a teardown of a piece of hardware as a learning exercise than a sort of 21st-century Heathkit. This is also where OpenMoko openly providing their design files comes in, both for professional clients and independent creators. "Most phone customization has been like a tattoo, something on the flesh without changing the flesh itself. This frees up the flesh." All that matters from that point forward is whether or not there's a market to justify producing the new design -- and since OpenMoko is targeting verticals (medical companies, education, etc.), it's that much easier for them to justify creating something in much smaller unit runs than someone like Nokia would ever consider.

One thing I had been wondering about since the OpenMoko's inception -- whether or not service providers would partner with OpenMoko to offer the phone with a service plan -- was partly answered by all of the above. To them, the success of the device isn't incumbent on competing with the RAZR or the iPhone, and so while they're willing to partner with a service provider, it'll be on their terms. One surefire way to avoid selling out, as Harlan Ellison once put it, is to set a price that can't be met -- but with the recent steps towards something like glasnost amongst the providers, maybe having them offer a handset with open everything isn't as improbable as it might have seemed two years ago.

Again, this is also where thinking of OpenMoko as just a phone is misleading. What started as a software project spun out on its own to become a hardware company that designed mobile computing devices using FOSS, not just "phones". "Everybody wants to call it a phone, but from the beginning I wanted to call it 'a computer with GSM'. Everybody wants it in that category, and I want it out of that category." Here's to not just thinking out of the box, but tearing it apart from the inside.

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