Quick e-mail poll: Still using your Freerunner?

Ken Young rtm at cfa.harvard.edu
Sun Jan 3 07:10:39 CET 2010

>Do you use FR as your daily/primary phone?

Not anymore.   I did for several months.

>Do you use FR as your primary PDA?

Yes, I still find it to be a wonderfully fun GPS-enabled PDA.   I just
got an N900, and I was quite surprised to find that the Freerunner's
display is nicer.   The N900 has 25% more pixels, but the Freerunner's
display is brighter, and seems to have higher contrast.

>What distribution you run most of the time?


My two cents:   If I were dictator of the gta02-core team (instead of
someone who doesn't even contribute), I would repurpose the device as a
GPS PDA.   I would remove all the radio components except for the WiFi,
and try to optimize for the longest battery life possible.

Those of us who have been following the Openmoko phones since before the
release of the gta01 will remember that Sean Moss-Pultz use to give
presentations in which one of the slides said that one of his big itches,
one of the things that lead him to work on a phone, was the desire to be
able to execute


     An adaptation of my favorite command in all of computing

root> apt-get install

[end quote]

Many of us read or heard those words and were hooked.  But the cell
phone world has changed dramatically since the introduction of the gta01.

When the gta01 was announced, GPS hardware was quite rare in a phone (the
first generation iPhone didn't have it, for example), and those few phones
which did have it had often been intentionally crippled by the wireless
service providers (at least in the US), so that they could offer
additional-fee location based "services" which were uniformly terrible.
Needless to say, third parties were not encouraged to write GPS enabled
software for those phones.   Today, it goes without saying that any new
smartphone will have GPS, and on many platforms, application developers
have access to the GPS information.

Today, you can buy an N900 from Nokia, and "apt-get install ..." will work
like a charm.   Nokia allows the user to run as root.   Their OS on that
phone is pretty familiar to Debian users.   I know that many of the
critical components on that phone are closed, and that owners are at the
mercy of Nokia's decision as to whether or not to support new kernel
releases, etc.   But on the other side of the equation, the phone works
well now, is 3G-enabled, has a good camera, has an audio system that does
not clip bass frequencies, has USB 2 rather than 1.1, has a much faster
processor, an FM transmitter/receiver, more RAM, GSM quad-band (not tri-band),
etc., ad nausium.   My point is not to be a shill for Nokia (though I'm
sure that's exactly what I sound like), but rather to point out that there
is really no hope at that a group of people such as the gta02-core team,
working part time with no large corporate sponsor, will ever produce a
product with hardware on a par with what the big players are
contemporaneously offering.   That wasn't really as clear when the gta01
was offered.   It had hardware that was better than average in some
respects (GPS, high resolution display), and worse than average in others
(CPU and connectivity).   The gta01 could hold its own against a Treo.
I don't think we'll see an openmoko phone that can hold its own against a
modern smartphone.

In software too, the situation has changed dramatically.  When the gta01
was announced, other smartphones were running terrible OSs like PalmOS,
or early versions of whatever the hell Microsoft was calling Windows
CE that week.  Now there's WebOS, Android, Maemo and OS X availble on
phones, all based on some Unix-like OS.   Are they free?   No.   But they
aren't simply hopeless for multi tasking like PalmOS was.

I'm sure there are people reading this who won't care about that.   The
mere fact that there are many people reading this mailing list who still
care about the Freerunner, even though they don't use it as their "real
phone" is a testiment to the loyalty of the openmoko community, and how
much we all wanted the Freerunner to succeed.   If a gta02-core or gta03
phone is ever offered for sale to the general public, I'll buy one.   But
I don't think there is any chance at all that such a phone will sell even
at the volume the Freerunner did.   And that was not enough to keep
Openmoko Co. in the phone business.    If you read the posts to this list
that were made shortly after the Freerunner went on sale, it's clear that
the phone was bought by some people who really just wanted a high-end
smartphone, and who were not geeks who enjoyed reading about ALSA files on
the wiki site.   The IRC channel was a lively beehive, with participants
of widely varying skills.   If another openmoko phone ever goes on sale, I
predict it will be bought only by the most fanatic FOSS enthusiasts.

In contrast, I think there still might be an unexploited niche in the
GPS-PDA arena.   Everyone knows the Freerunner has excited geocachers,
hikers, bikers, etc.   I don't know of any company such as Garmin or
Magellen offering a GPS unit which is hacker-freindly and linux based.
When you're hiking, you very often can't get a GSM signal anyway, so who
would care if the GPS unit they had was a cell phone too?   What if the
gta03 had no phone hardware, an excellent GPS subsystem, an electronic
paper display, and wonderful battery life?   I think *that* would be a
much more exciting product than any realistically possible gta03 phone,
and a more tractible engineering project too.

Ken Young

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