Ever since the withdrawal of Openmoko from open smartphone development, it appears to have been challenging to find large numbers of people who might be interested in supporting similar open hardware efforts, either by having them put down money to fund the development and production of devices, or by encouraging them to develop Free Software to run on the hardware produced by those efforts. That anyone can go and buy an Android phone and tell themselves that it is just like that dream they once had of running Linux on a phone (if they turn the lights down low enough and ignore the technical and ethical limitations) serves as just enough of a distraction to keep people merely curious about things like Openmoko and open hardware, persuading them to hold off supporting such things until everybody else has jumped on board and already made it a safe choice. It almost goes without saying that where risk-takers are needed to make something happen, that thing is not going to happen if everybody looks to everybody else to take the risk. (And even when people do take the risk, they seem to think that their pledges and donations are as good as money in the bank, but that is another story.)
Naturally, the Ubuntu Edge campaign showed that some money is floating around and can be attracted to suitably exciting projects. Unfortunately, one may be tempted to conclude that anything more mundane than a next generation product – one that can only be delivered at some point in the future, once it becomes feasible and economic to manufacture and sell something with “out of this world” specifications – is unlikely to attract the interest of potential customers with money to pledge towards something. Such potential customers surely want something their money cannot already buy, and offering only things like openness and freedom as enhancements to today’s specifications is perhaps not exciting enough for some of those people.
It is therefore rather refreshing that two communities have recently become more aware of the possibilities offered by, and available to, open hardware: the OpenPhoenux community with their ongoing GTA04 project to follow on from the work of Openmoko, and the Maemo community seeking a sustainable future beyond the now-discontinued Nokia N900 smartphone. Despite heroic efforts to sustain the GTA04 project, outside interest has apparently been low enough that additional production has been placed on hold: a minimum number of orders needs to exist before any kind of further manufacturing can take place. Meanwhile, a community of people whose devices may one day fail to function or perhaps no longer function already, forcing them to seek replacements in the second-hand market with all the usual online auction profiteering and the purchasing uncertainties that go along with it, have been made aware of an active hardware project whose foundations largely resemble those of the devices they wish to sustain.
So, unlike Ubuntu Edge, the Neo900 initiative is not offering next year’s hardware. In fact, it is not even offering this year’s hardware. But what it does offer is a sustainable path into the future for those who like the form factor and software provided by the N900: people who were having to come to terms with buying a device that would not be as satisfactory as the one they already have, merely because the device they already have has reached the end of its usable life, and because the mobile device industry has a different idea of progress from the one they happen to have. In effect, the Neo900 is about taking control, owning the roadmap, deciding when or whether the fads and fashions of the industry at large will serve them better, and being able to choose or to reject the wider industry’s offerings on a more reasonable timescale.
The N900, as a product abandoned some time ago by Nokia as it retreated into being a vassal state of the Microsoft empire, gets an opportunity to rise from the ashes of the ruin wrought by the establishment of that corporate relationship. At a time where Nokia sees its core business incorporated into Microsoft itself in the final chapter of what has to be one of the most widely predicted and reported acts of alleged corporate looting in recent years, and where former Nokia executives announce plans to re-establish the business independently by attracting neglected Nokia talent, the open phoenix in the form of OpenPhoenux may help the N900 to rise above its troubled past and to shine once again as its former custodians struggle with the mayhem of corporate integration or corporate reconstruction, depending on where they end up.
People might wonder why anyone would want more of the same rather than something new, different, exciting, shiny. The fact is that away from the noise of exhibition floor, trade show and developer conference demonstrations, most people just want something that works and, preferably, something they already know. Their life goes on and does not wait for them to have to learn the latest gestures and moves to make some new gadget do what their old gadget was doing before it broke down. Some people – those with an N900 or those who wanted one – now have a new opportunity available to them, thanks to open hardware and the Neo900 initiative. For the rest of us, it offers more choice and maybe some hope that open hardware will be able to cater to more people in times to come.