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Summary:

Benoit Schillings, chief technology officer of Oslo-based mobile software company Trolltech, is frustrated with the mobile phone industry. Unlike software development for the PC industry, which has reached some level of openness and innovation, the ecosystem and tools for mobile development is severely stunted, he says. […]

Benoit Schillings, chief technology officer of Oslo-based mobile software company Trolltech, is frustrated with the mobile phone industry. Unlike software development for the PC industry, which has reached some level of openness and innovation, the ecosystem and tools for mobile development is severely stunted, he says. The mobile industry hasn’t been able harness the innovation potential of the DIY developers, which can come up with clever new ways of extending the mobile platform. Much of the blame goes to “control freak” rulers aka the carriers, and their platform partners who rule the mobile world with an iron fist.

It’s not an uncommon sentiment, but to meet this need, Schillings and his team dreamed up Greenphone, a hackable Linux-based cell phone for developers that is open to all types of tinkering and application-testing. (‘Green’ for the color of Trolltech’s logo.) His vision is that of a “truly open phone” and he came up with the idea at a wireless convention in February 2006.

Six months later the company introduced the product at Linux World in August. Trolltech, which went public in July of this year, will soon start shipping the device that costs $695 a pop, though a commercial license to resell the applications can cost much more. Only 1,000 of the devices were shipped for the first orders. The phone will be sold as a part of an application developer kit, and will most likely be purchased by developers at interested carriers, small manufacturers, Internet service providers and of course the enthusiastic mobile DIY-ers.

Greenphone is too geeky for regular mobile users, and will likely make up only a tiny part of Trolltech’s bottom line, but it could make some real waves in the mobile industry. Though, perhaps in mindset and method only. Development for the mobile phone industry is hampered by the laborious testing cycles, which have to be done for hundreds of handsets that are often hard to come by.

That means the typical natural selection for popular PC applications doesn’t take place on the mobile. Greenphone can help by providing the open Linux-based device for easier development and quicker testing. “Developers are the most valuable thing in the world. We’ve leveraged that on the PC, now it’s time for mobile,” Schillings says.

The Linux operating system has been a source of innovation, attracting developers from around the world who have tweaked it to fit their needs. From Tivo PVRs to routers to cheap computers, hackers have come up with nifty uses of the open source operating system. If only a fraction of the developers start to focus on the mobile platform called Greenphone, it could upend the power structure of the industry.

Still, Schillings knows the differences between development for the mobile and PC environments first hand. Years ago he founded a startup called Be OS that tried to battle Microsoft on the operating system and failed (there’s control freaks in every industry). That failure is coming in handy, and makes him realize that compared to that closed ecosystem, the mobile ecosystem is far worse, and needs more standardization. And of course more hacking.

By Katie Fehrenbacher

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  1. I feel Schillings has something good here, definitely when considering a lot of light in the most recent major commercial consumer electronics are\were influenced by open source development. Creating a platform for developers in a pile on environment is just dangerous – in a good way. I will comment more but my CLIE typing skills are bad, ahh, which reminds me of PALM. Their Palm OS perception could have took the platform to a new level from opening up options for developers of all kind. Even started a nice community of devs that are anticipating new hardware innovations even now (they are really waiting too, long that is), but most of all they are bonded by a profitable state of mind. We all know why it failed but it was a strong community – just not that publicized.

    The method forces the open source teams and theorists to elaborate to the extreme. As I said before Trolltech is on a role here because they are providing something to work for. It pushes efforts on the developers and a goal, some projects are never ending projects in open source but by providing this ethic in a commercial standpoint, it can happen and fast if done well. I will comment more when I get back to the PC. Good Article!

    CyKiller

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  2. I admit it, but I get a little moist when I hear the terms linux, hackable, and cellphone in the same post.

    Nice find Katie.

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  3. IMHO its not going to be accepted by the Open Source community. The radicals will refuse it, the conservaties will question it, the carriers wont accept it. Its not tuly open.

    The community wants real freedom! Not a hackable Phone. If we want, we can hack any phone available in the market today.

    :)

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  4. Any potential intersection with Moto’s (and other vendors large and small) use of Linux for some future phones?

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  5. Katie is the smartest person alive.

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  6. Rajiv4,

    I bet many naysayers like you said the same thing about the first Apple and Mac when Steve Jobs and Woz were working on it in their garages in the 1970s. In fact, PARC must have totally agreed with your sentiments echoed today about “radicals” and “conservatives”. Anyway, if the telecos want to make more money by pushing more bits around (not just voice calls), they have no choice but to open up and allow for creativity to push the envelope forward. This isn’t to say that the first Greenphone implementation is going to take the world by storm, but it is to say that Trolltech is making a dent in the world which others missed the boat on (e.g., look at Palm’s problems on the Treo and how they dropped the next generation of their OS … look at the death of the Clie because Sony didn’t understand about creating an ecology which would allow development to flourish).

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  7. This will have the same fate as BeOS. Not because it’s a bad idea, but because the carriers that finally do decide to go with a platform approach will follow Apple’s lead in the mobile space. They’ll realize that they can create a platform, charge reasonable fees to use it and have all kinds of great content and applications. The DoCoMo model, or the Apple model applied to mobile – not Linux…

    Open source, open platform phones? Only if it’s using WiFi!

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  8. [...] (those Greenphone guys) says Skype has chosen its Linux development technology Qtopia as the “prefered [...]

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