Questions and Answers
sean at openmoko.com
Sat Jan 3 00:11:08 CET 2009
Here are my answers to your great questions:
> Q1. The end of the year is a time to look back on the year
> achievements. So where does Openmoko stands now from a business point
> of view ? Could you comment on sustainability, on sales numbers, on
> geographic markets and customer categories ?
Let me begin by addressing the market aspects of the question, because I
find this part more fundamental. Openmoko was built from the tools and
knowledge of the Internet. Our argument for the necessity of an open
phone stems from an observation that the Internet breaks down mass
markets by making it economically attractive for companies to address
niche market segments. We saw a real business opportunity caused by this
divergence. So we set out to build a product capable of allowing a
company to reach out to its customers and allowing its customers to talk
back and to talk to each other. This product was the Neo 1973.
We pioneered a new breed of Consumer Electronics companies. The products
we build expand our community. The expanded community makes for better
products and more sales. Ad infinitum. Perhaps one day people will look
back and call such corporate and community teamwork the first, of many,
Social Electronics companies.
FreeRunner, our major product milestone of 2008, started selling in
July. We were more conservative this time with our launch. There were no
pre-orders. We sold first through distributors. Our own order processing
was entirely automated. Last time it was (painfully) manual. I hope
everyone who reads this list will appreciate how much effort FreeRunner
took. Openmoko is a very small company. We succeeded in building a
smartphone only because we didn't have enough experienced people to tell
us that it couldn't be done.
While far better than the Neo 1973, FreeRunner had its share of
problems. The ancient TI Calypso had registration and SIM card
compatibility issues. Audio quality, while slowly improving, still is
not perfect. But I can accept these growing pains. We are improving. We
are much better than our last product. And community effects continue to
materialize in mind-blowing ways. (I will never forget the speed at
which we all fixed the GPS issue.)
"Back to the Basics" was our response to your public and private
comments. We continue to refocus internal efforts around these ideas.
Paroli represents a phone application with a feature set reduced to the
bare minimum that is still useful. FSO is our base that will let you
easily build what you want. The entire system is becoming more stable as
we increase our efforts to have our kernel downloadable from kernel.org.
Our technology plan is stabilized at this point. Development priorities
for the next six months are clear.
Openmoko's goal can be written in one sentence: We want to build
consumer products that package the best parts of the FOSS world into
products that are relevant and inspiring to ordinary people.
"Inspiring" is the key part of this goal in my mind. Here's a list, off
the top of my head, of the things we've inspired to date:
* A small project inside of FIC to become an independent company
* 24 distributors around the world to join us in getting our products
to more people
* The development of entire distributions (as opposed to just
* Industrial designers to remix our CAD files
* A very interesting Framework initiative
* A documentation list with the most amazing Community Update emails
Using inspiration as a metric, without a doubt, Openmoko was a massive
success in 2008. If you want to compare us to Apple and their iPhone I
would be flattered, but I also think it's a strange comparison. We are
very a small company. Sales are just enough (around 10,000 to date) to
survive. Apple has been around for 30 years - Openmoko just under two.
I'm extremely excited about our position going into 2009. At the same
time, I'm very realistic about the road we are traveling. Success will
take everything we've got.
> Q2. The god of January has two faces, one looking back and one looking
> forward, so... Juergen, Eric in Japan and practically everybody else
> want to know when will the GTA03 phone be released, if it will have
> 3G/3.5G, a camera and the kitchen sink. Can you tell us anything yet?
> Where do you want Openmoko to be in December 2009?
We sold the FreeRunner based on "Openness" alone in 2008. We had no real
competition in the marketplace. We were very lucky. But times are
changing. Go ask your non-developer friends what's the most open phone
in the world. They'll say the iPhone or G1. At least that's what I'm
Nobody will doubt the value of openness for the mobile industry anymore.
This seems like good news at first glance. But what openness are they
talking about? Look around and you'll find it's pretty different than
what we've been talking about. Yes, the very definition of openness is
changing. This troubles me because we cannot influence markets with our
words — only our products. And the quality of our products is not world
class yet. The bar has been seriously raised. Time is running out. We
need to find a way to lead again. I don't believe playing catch up will
work. Something fundamental needs to change.
I've been thinking a lot about art this past year and how it relates to
what we do. Specifically, I've been extremely interested in categories
and perception. The difference between new art and copies is in the
ability to show contrast. The difference between new art and a mistake
is in perception. A change in perception can only happen when people no
longer think in terms of the same categories.
One of my favorite examples comes from the 20th century artist Vladimir
Malevich. Why would somebody, leading a comfortable career following the
latest trends, come up with something like Suprematism out of the blue?
What changed in mind of Malevich to go from painting vibrant fluid
landscapes to a white square on a white canvas? I think I understand now.
As an entrepreneur, I know that our best work is done when our resources
are limited because there is no other choice. Necessity is, after all,
the mother of all invention. Openmoko needs our best work to thrive in
2009. Our goal will be to generate more contrast, enough to change
people's perception, enough to stay visible.
This is all I want to say about GTA03 at this point.
> Q3. The mandatory dogfood question was submitted by Yorik Moko:
> "Do you use the FreeRunner as your daily phone, which distro
> and what is your favorite application ?"
I use two phones daily. My FreeRunner boots (now) Om 2008.12. The
last 3 months before that I've been using Om 2008 TESTING. My second
phone is a Blackberry Curve, used not out of love but out of a desperate
form of addiction to the digital world. Sometimes I wake up in the
middle of the night just to check email.
This past year, I've had too much email and too much technology. More
and more I find myself looking for natural, handmade things. At the same
time, though, I'm definitely not willing to give up my technology. I
want both a phone that is digital, but in a strange way also analog. I
hope to build one next year. Let's see if we can get there!
> Q4. Todd would like to know exactly what are your feelings about
> Android and its impact on the Openmoko OS.
I would like to clarify one thing first: We don't see Android as the
competition. This might surprise you. But it shouldn't. Would a painter
(I would ask) view new paint, a blank canvas, or paintbrushes as the
competition? Surely they would see them as tools, as raw materials,
waiting for their imagination to transform them into something real.
Android is a software stack that is both complex and high quality. But
software is just one small piece of what a person interacts with when
making a phone call. My fascination with the mobile phone, at least to a
large extent, stems from the fact that it runs complex software that
most people don't know or care about. Please make no mistake about the
importance of this last statement: ordinary people don't care what
software their phone uses. You might think this trivializes what Google
did. That is not my intention. I have nothing but the greatest respect
for what Andy Rubin's team pulled off - that was an engineering
masterpiece. But I see Openmoko as a product company. First and foremost
we must concern ourselves with impacting the lives of ordinary people.
Praising (for too long) a software stack would be placing technology in
a far more powerful position than (I believe) it belongs.
> Q5. Kosa and Marco wondered if you could say us something about the
> management that doesn't seem to be loved by great hackers like Harald
> and Carsten. For example, what is your analysis of the controversies
> that led Om2008 to ship with Qtopia's predictive keyboard.
I am puzzled each time I hear people complain about "management" in
Openmoko. Management (myself obviously included) goes out of our way to
provide the best environment we can. People, like Harald and Raster, are
given immense freedom to work on what they feel is most important.
Management is responsible for the results of their efforts. So if we
make changes that are unpopular, it's only because the realities of
shipping a working product under a limited amount of resources (time,
money, etc...) became too great. It's not because we don't believe in
them or their abilities.
Let me give everyone a bit more background into the keypad issue. We
first saw the Qtopia predictive keypad back in February of 2008, and
became extremely exited. This keypad, we believed, had the potential to
become better than anything on the market.
We asked Raster to integrate this keypad into Om 2008 and extend it to
make it more hacker friendly (i.e., usable from places like the
terminal). After two months of more or less silence he showed us his own
version, written from scratch. The design was a work in progress. And
the dictionary was far inferior to what Qtopia had already. An internal
battle started that lasted until one month before Om 2008 was set to be
released when our product manager, Will Lai, couldn't take it anymore.
He asked another engineer to just get the Qtopia keypad working.
At that point Raster's keypad was getting stable. It had many new
features. But basic text entry was still not as good as Qtopia's. Major
parts of Om 2008, in the meantime, were still not finished (like the
Glamo or network manager).
Openmoko (the company) needs to focus on simplifying. We need to limit
ourselves to building what doesn't already exist. We cannot constantly
try to build better components from scratch. Our resources are just too
limited for that. Openmoko is trying to repackage the essentials (just
enough) to make people feel inspired. What's not there is often times
more inspiring than what is there.
I emailed Raster, the other day, asking if my current perspective
corresponds with his. The main motivation for writing a new keypad from
scratch, he said, had to do with his ability to (easily) extend Qtopia's
code. C++ and qt were not familiar to him. And he wanted something with
more configuration options. To get there with Qtopia, he thought, would
take more time then writing a new one from scratch.
All I ask is that we please don't continue this debate. We have both
now. FSO is using Illume's keypad, so future Om releases will most
likely do the same.
Raster's keyboard, without a doubt, inspired many people in our
community. We've arrived at a point we can look at the past and find out
what we have experienced and what meaning it has. I'll leave the
conclusions up to you.
> Q6. There are many Openmoko communities in languages other than
> English now. Swap38 asks how can they best contribute back to the
> project, and if there are plans to organize the diversity around a
> common model, as OpenOffice.org did for example. What is the status of
> the internationalization and localization effort ?
To the best of my knowledge, there have only been a few coordinated
localization efforts on our lists. I would love to see more.
Localization is very interesting to me since I believe FOSS provides a
unique opportunity to think locally, but act globally.
Probably the best way forward is for people to volunteer on the
community list. Key documentation, language strings, howtos, all could
use translations. If there is anything Openmoko can do to better
organize these efforts, please let us know. We really do need a lot of help.
> Q7. Let's be reflexive, kind of "we have to talk about our
> relationship, dear". Tilman, supported by Michelle, wonders to which
> extend the community has met your expectations. More precisely, could
> you name an area where it did not, perhaps like an application that
> you would have expected be written already ?
The first part of this question is very hard for me to answer. I don't
think it's possible to talk about a community meeting the expectations
of an individual. I only wanted to inspire people, not demand results
From day one, I believed that Openmoko needed to deconstruct the
smartphone to its bare essentials, and then build up something new that
properly embraced diversity (the more human face of complexity). Along
this journey we were sidetracked into reinventing the smartphone many
times. I'm not sure why remaking what already exists emits such a strong
gravitational pull - but it does.
Around the end of 2007, I had an "out of body" moment when I realized
where the path we were going was leading us. In short, we realized that
if we ship with a reduced set of smartphone applications then we show
the past, and promise the future. Everyone will compare what is missing.
And we can only say, we are open; all that standard stuff you expect in
a phone will come. In short, we've turned the future into the past.
If we launch with just a single future phone application then we deliver
the future, and forget the past. When people ask where a past feature
is, "Hey where are contacts?" we'd say, "Contacts are in the past". The
phone of the future will manage this for you, even tell you before you
call if your contact is online, offline, around the corner, or only
taking voicemail. We must move beyond the phone. Support for legacy
stuff will come.
We tried to refocus the company around these ideas. This led to an
application called Diversity. The basic idea is the following:
Neos talk to other Neos using a self-creating, self-healing, global
free (WiFi) network. The software system, code named Diversity,
consists of many clients (Neos) talking to servers and, at a later
time, self-connecting, using mesh-like interactions.
When powered on, Neos continuously expand the construction of the
free network by automatically searching out free WiFi spots and
adding their locations to a database for other Neos to use. A simple
reward system based on visual / auditory feedback will let people
know that a new spot was discovered.
Communication is done on the free (WiFi) network with only one
exception: When a Neo cannot find a free network to connect to, it
will dial into the non-free (GSM) network for only the time required
to download the nearest free WiFi spot locations. Using GPS, the Neo
is then able to navigate to that position and communicate for free.
Communication is simply a layer on top of the free network. It can be
auditory, visual, or textual.
"Free your Phone" was our marketing focus up to that point. But we
realized this was not enough. Even when the phone is completely opened,
it's still not free. There's another force keeping it's potential locked
up. This is the carrier's network. They limit what can be plugged in and
what the plugged in devices can do. So we thought we needed to "Free the
To make a long story short, execution got in the way of ideas (something
a bit too familiar in Openmoko). Parts of the project went into
Locations. But the full idea of constructing a parallel, free
communication network never materialized. Maybe people had similar ideas
(I was reading about kismet on our list a while back) but I think we
were in the best position to make it happen from a product standpoint.
One day we'll come back to these goals, but not until we ship a robust,
well-designed phone. Until then, we'll stay focused on getting "Back to
If a serious community effort would be established around these goals,
there's a very good chance Openmoko would design a phone specifically
for this purpose. I still believe this device could become the icon of
> Q8. On the other hand, Tim and others would like to know the most
> interesting or fun thing you have seen the Freerunner used for ?
Guillermo Sureda-Burgos' work (and essay) on open industrial design
ranks high on my list. So do Numpty Physics and Duke Nukem. But I think
the most surprising thing (as in we didn't see it coming) was the
explosion of new distributions: FDOM, SHR, even Debian. Being able to
swap out entire software stacks with the change of an SD card gives a
whole new meaning to the word customization.
> Q9. And where do you think could any person do the most for the
> project right now? Think of if that person would be ideal and have all
> the skills needed. And then, which skills are in most need right now
> and in the future?
There are so many ways people can contribute that it's hard for me to
single out a specific task or accomplishment. Development, testing, bug
fixing, organizational, and documentation tasks are all important.
Perhaps the best way to figure something out in this regard is for
people to post their qualifications and interests to the community list
and we all can provide direction based on that.
> Q10. To conclude, can we have a video of you in Openmoko T-shirt and
> geek-cap, having a phone chat with star hackers, using Neo FreeRunners
> at both ends, telling each other your favorite FreerRunner joke?
I'm in San Francisco now, without a video camera. So this one will have
to wait until I return to Taiwan. When we're done filming, I'll
post to the community list.
Hopefully you all got this far. I know this email is long. It was quite
an experience for me to write so much. (Minh you did an amazing job
compiling these questions!) We've come a long way together. I'm
really looking forward to 2009. We have great opportunities all over the
place. So what matters is that we continue to be hopeful for the future.
And, together, we take the bold steps needed to get there.
Happy New Year!
More information about the community