OpenMoko's Next Step: Running Free - InformationWeek
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4/14/2008
12:06 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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OpenMoko's Next Step: Running Free

Remember OpenMoko, the makers of the Neo 1973 handset that runs Linux and is designed from the ground-up to be a hacker's and customizer's paradise?  They're back again with more tinkerer's delights: the FreeRunner.  They've also learned a few things from their experiences with marketing and developing the Neo -- not just hardware and software, but how to sell something this unusual.

Remember OpenMoko, the makers of the Neo 1973 handset that runs Linux and is designed from the ground-up to be a hacker's and customizer's paradise?  They're back again with more tinkerer's delights: the FreeRunner.  They've also learned a few things from their experiences with marketing and developing the Neo -- not just hardware and software, but how to sell something this unusual.

First, some history.  The original Neo handset came out in two editions: a basic version for everyone and their brother, and an advanced edition for tinkerers and hackers.  According to a post on the OpenMoko community mailing list, the forthcoming FreeRunner (400 Mhz processor, WiFi, BlueTooth 2.0, microSD card, et al) won't be sold like that -- there will be a single standard version at US$399.  If you want tinkerer-specific features, like the debug board (US$99), you'll need to buy them as totally separate items.

A major reason for changing the packaging of the product was bringing costs down.  A smaller box with less in it costs that much less to ship and store; in the words of the developers, they "optimized the box like it was code".  The developers can still get their goodies, just separately -- and for those who want a price break by buying in bulk, there's a ten-pack that brings the price down to $369 per handset.

What's most striking about the OpenMoko is the openness of the development process -- not just the software, but the hardware (you can now get full CAD designs for the 1973 and the FreeRunner), the marketing, the whole thing.  Contrast that with Apple, whose every move is shrouded in "Above Black"-style secrecy until their products are officially announced -- and who go to great lengths to keep the iPhone from being customized (read: hacked) by the end user.

I'm still convinced the best thing that OpenMoko could do would be to partner with an existing cellular carrier as a way to get the handset into as many people's hands as possible.  That's how phones generally reach the masses -- as cost-plus additions with a new cell contract.  But with change in the wind for the way telecom in general does business, maybe there'll be a far bigger market in the coming year or two for phones that are unlocked from the git-go.

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