by Bernard Golden

Open Source in Your Ear

Aug 25, 20064 mins

One of the most interesting announcements at LinuxWorld was the TrollTech Qtopia Greenphone. The Greenphone is a cellphone intended as a development harness for open source developers to experiment with.

It is a working GSM phone that enables flash updating of the Linux-based operating system. If you read my recent blog posting on net neutrality and hardware hacking, you’ll know about the potential for a user-modifiable piece of hardware.

TrollTech does not intend the Greenphone to be a widely available product; in fact, they don’t expect that it will be anyone’s “real” mobile phone. Instead, they expect it will be a platform for experimentation that will enable end users to extend the phone’s base functionality in ways that cannot be foreseen by Trolltech or anyone else.

Because the Greenphone is end user-modifiable, it holds the potential to change the established value chain in mobile phone service. Today, for an application to end up on a phone in your hands, it must pass muster with both the handset manufacturer and the mobile service provider. As you might imagine, this is a tortuous process, particularly given the fact that, while both parties cooperate in this process, their interests are not exactly aligned. And both of them are trying to figure out how to offer and profit from handset applications, which means their interests are only partly aligned with the end user’s.

More challenging is the process from the application provider’s point of view. Since getting one’s application on the end phone rests with convincing two large, bureaucratic organizations to agree to ship the app, the process inevitably works to the benefit of deep-pocketed application providers but to the detriment of innovative but not-so-well-off companies. It can be especially difficult to demonstrate an application on a phone; since the startup can’t demo its app, it’s nearly impossible to convince the handset provider/service provider to take a chance on an unseen piece of software.

The Greephone offers something of a break from that established process. Because an end user can modify the phone’s Linux system, it is possible for an application provider to install its app on a working phone and demonstrate its functionality to the manufacturers and service providers. Since, as the old saying goes, seeing is believing, the Greenphone may provide application companies a powerful weapon to get to market.

All of this is a bit tricky since mobile phones operate under strict governmental regulations regarding amount of power emitted, frequencies used, and so on. Neither handset manufacturers nor service providers want to offer application companies a method to modify those phone characteristics, since failure to comply could cost them dearly. Furthermore, these companies are reluctant to allow modification of the phones because they will retain support responsibility even if someone runs into trouble with a modified phone.

Trolltech has cleverly gotten around the regulatory issue by separating the application portion of the phone from the operational portion; the former may be modified and reflashed, while the latter is inaccessible to user modification.

Much of the need for this clever architecting may become unnecessary with a new generation of phones, according to the Trolltech fellow I spoke to last week at LinuxWorld. There is going to be a new generation of WiFi-based phones that are, according to Trolltech, exempt from the cellular regulations regarding power and so on.

I’m guessing the WiFi phones are less regulated, but still carry some regulation, since I find it difficult to believe that a WiFi spectrum phone could blast as much power as the manufacturer or a subsequent produce modifier might choose. Nonetheless, the ability to reflash the phone without having to go through the handset manufacturer and the service provider offers enormous potential.

Trolltech says plainly that it expects to be surprised when it comes to the user applications people create to run on the Greenphone.  If my experience with hacking my Linksys router is any indication, I would expect that there will be enormous creativity unleashed as people start exploring how they can extend the phone’s functionality.