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7/9/2007
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Linux-Based OpenMoko 'Anti-iPhone' Debuts

The mobile smartphone includes a 2.8-inch VGA touch screen, A-GPS for location and navigation services, and GSM850/900/1800/1900 compatibility.

OpenMoko, an initiative to develop an open mobile smartphone backed by Taiwan-based First International Computer, today began selling its Linux-based Neo 1973 phone to developers.

Though it lacks the polish of Apple's iPhone, the Neo 1973 is more revolutionary.

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs first announced the union of phone and iPod in January, he came armed with superlatives. "iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone," he declared.

Leaving aside the issue of whether the iPhone is indeed magical -- early reports that Apple has sold some 500,000 to 700,000 units suggest widespread enchantment -- critics of Apple's device say the revolution has not been realized.

"But the iPhone is -- so far -- not a product that will turn any industry inside out," wrote Columbia law professor Tim Wu in a Slate.com essay on the day of the iPhone's release. "Seen as a phone, the iPhone is striking. Seen as a small computer, it's limited, and compromised by the existing business models of the wireless industry. Saying the iPhone is a pointless gadget is a bit too strong. But it isn't yet a revolutionary device."

Wu's criteria for a revolution: "a 3G phone that works with any carrier and supports third-party apps." The iPhone is not a 3G phone; it runs on the decidedly slower Edge network. It works only with AT&T's network in the United States. And its support for third-party apps is limited.

The discontent expressed by Wu and others is not so much a rejection of Apple's innovation -- the iPhone is full of Apple goodness -- as dissatisfaction with the capricious limitations imposed on iPhone users by Apple's much derided partner, AT&T.

For example, the iPhone may only access AT&T's network for "(i) Internet browsing; (ii) e-mail; and (iii) corporate intranet access..." No VoIP for you. AT&T explicitly says, "Except for content formatted in accordance with AT&T's content standards, unlimited plans cannot be used for uploading, downloading or streaming of video content (e.g. movies, TV), music or games." Fun, where permitted, carries a surcharge.

As consumer telecom advocacy group TeleTruth said recently, "Putting the iPhone as pretty-telephone-bauble aside, the real story is about the control of the wireless networks and devices and how anti-customer most of these services have become."

OpenMoko aims to foment a real revolution by giving control to the customer, as least inasmuch as is possible on closed carrier networks. "OpenMoko is an open source mobile communications movement on a mission to create a platform that empowers people to customize their phone, much like a computer, in any way they see fit," said Sean Moss-Pultz, architect of OpenMoko and product manager of First International Computer's mobile communication business unit, in an e-mail.

Why buy a Neo rather than an iPhone? "While Apple delivers a polished experience, it's an experience that is exactly how you they want you to have it," said Moss-Pultz. "In other words, users really have no freedom to change the device if they don't like the way Apple chose to make things. OpenMoko is the anti-iPhone."

OpenMoko's Neo 1973 includes a 2.8-inch VGA touch screen; A-GPS for location and navigation services; GSM850/900/1800/1900 compatibility for network support in Europe, Asia- Pacific, Japan, Africa, and the United States; an application manager for adding, updating, and removing applications; "push" (BlackBerry-style) e-mail, contacts, and calendar synchronization through open source software company Funambol; and the OpenMoko Software Developer Kit for application development.

Two consumer versions of the Neo are planned for release in October, one for $450 and the other for $300. Support for 3G networks is planned for 2008. OpenMoko plans to promote certain popular certified applications on its devices, with more esoteric programs left to the discretion of users.

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