LinuxPhone, For Mobile DIY

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.

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