Freerunner, at last

It’s been a long time coming, but on July 4th 2008 Openmoko finally started shipping the Neo Freerunner.  I placed my order on July 12th, only to find the first lot had already sold out. (direct buy!!)  Now I’m waiting for the July 25th resupply, gnashing my teeth.

What is a Freerunner, you ask?  It’s a handheld touchscreen device with GSM phone, GPRS data, GPS, Bluetooth, and Wifi networking.  And it’s running Linux.  specifically it’s running a full custom built (loosely Debian-based, like Ubuntu) Xwindows 480×640 desktop, with custom (opensource, of course) apps preinstalled to take care of phone dialing/answering, phonebook, calculator, calendar etc – the expected tasks these days of a cellphone.  Some people call it an ‘Anti-iPhone’, given the similarity of the devices but the wildly divergent licensing.  Development of the Neo actually started at least 3 years ago, the first model (think of it as a ‘Beta’, named the Neo 1973) was released in limited quantities last summer, targeting the community of developers forming around the platform.  This new model, the Freerunner, has a faster CPU, added WiFi, added 2D/3D graphics accelleration, 2 accelerometers (motion/position/orientation sensors – think: wii controller) and other refinements.  (think of the Freerunner as a ‘Release Candidate’)  The only two hardware features I feel it lacks that many consumers will want are a builtin camera (I personally don’t care – I’ve found most camera phones to be nearly worthless for anything larger than thumbnail images) and faster cellular data.  (It supports GPRS only, while most GSM carriers also offer EDGE, at 2x or more the throughput of GPRS – I’ve clocked my EDGE connection at about 200kbps, GPRS at under 100kbps) It also currently has horrible battery performance, but the power management support is still being written.

A complete (free opensource) cross-development toolchain is available for various environments.  With the development system a vast resource of linux/xwindows software is portable to the Neo.  Right up to beasts like OpenOffice.org, Firefox, etc.  There’s a group of developers who are working with the Asterisk VOIP/PBX server, others on game-machine emulators, still others writing entirely new software that wouldn’t have even made sense until the Neo came into existence.  Once a package is stable, it can be placed in a public feed and installed on any Neo painlessly.  (if you’re not aware then believe me – package management on a modern Linux system is pretty much painless and nearly effortless – need a photo view with slideshow?  Fire up the package manager and search for ‘photo slide’ and choose one of the programs listed, It’s downloaded and installed, along with any libraries and such required, automatically)

Not only is all the software – barring GPS and video drivers, IIRC – opensource, but so is the hardware!  hardware hackers are encouraged, Openmoko even provide CAD/CAM files for the entire device.  Perhaps a hacker loves the Freerunner, but really wishes it had an IR port (to work as a smart remote control) – serial port pinouts are on the board and fully documented.  Same with USB – it can work as both a USB host (IE, computer) and USB device (IE, usb storage or usb network adapter) over either the USB port on the side, or the USB pinouts on the board.  Buy the additional ‘debug board’ and you have access to USB, serial, and JTAG bus on a separate board, better for extensive design and testing.  The ‘official’ Openmoko hardware is the Neo, which is manufactured for Openmoko by their one-time parent company, FIC in Taiwan.  (FIC, First International Computer, manufacture a broad range of things, including the Everex brand of PCs that caught attention last fall with a $200 low-power ‘green’ PC [sans monitor] sold through Walmart, Newegg, and several other vendors, preinstalled with a customized Ubuntu linux with Google Apps on the desktop, named ‘gOS’)

The possibilities represented in this device are legion.  VOIP over WiFi or GPRS.  (I have an unlimited data plan, and a VOIP server for my home phone – free unlimited calling to/from the Neo via VOIP)  Handheld media playback and streaming.  Live internet-connected mapping and directions features based on GPS.  (the “Dash” internet-connected GPS unit is actually designed around the Neo 1973, using GPRS data connection)  Live Geoblogging.  Remote data-gathering and monitoring equipment.  So many in the Openmoko community brimming with bright ideas.

Right now, the Freerunner is a $400 linux-based multitech-connected PDA that includes phone and GPS capabilities.  At that price, as an unlocked GSM ‘smartphone’ handset, it’s somewhat attractive to the average consumer, but it’s not yet intended for them.  It works fine as a phone, and a handheld computer, but the software ‘polishing’ isn’t complete yet, though the opensource development community that has built up around it the past couple years is in full swing and the developers at Openmoko (quite an impressive team) are hard at work.  But the average consumer won’t be pleased with a device they occasionally need to reflash to a new firmware, for example, so for the near future the Freerunner will remain a geek toy.

but hopefully, in another couple weeks, it’ll be MY geek toy.  :)

j

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