Monday, October 15, 2007

OpenMoko Neo1973: History

The Neo1973 smartphone (named for the invention of the mobile telephone in 1973) was announced in September 2006 (well before the Apple iPhone was announced). Apparently, the Neo1973 hardware was developed for a customer by a Taiwanese computer manufacturer First International Computer (FIC). When the deal fell through OpenMoko came onto the scene and we are now benefiting from this rather happy twist of fate.

In March 2007 some 50 phones were released to a select collection of developers for the first cut. These were known as the Phase 0 phones, or the Neo1973 GTA01Bv3 phones.

On 9 July 2007 the smartphone was made generally available to developers as a basic, minimally functioning, GNU/Linux device! It was not yet ready for end user release. It required support from the open source developer community to contribute to its software development. These smartphones were identified as the Developer Release, the Neo1973 GTA01Bv4, and the Phase1 (or P1) smartphone.

Figure 2.1: The Neo.
Image Neo_black_big

On the announcement of its availability in July the OpenMoko web site was inundated and overwhelmed, and regularly unable to cope with the load, at least for a couple of days. OpenMoko was stretched enormously, but still managed to take many orders. Rumors put the number of orders received as well over the 1000 devices they had built. The OpenMoko Wiki, where customers were recording their order numbers and sharing details, listed order numbers starting from 1820, and going to 4504.

Fearing that some purchasers may be disappointed when they receive a device that was only barely functional as a telephone, OpenMoko emailed all ordering customers (14 July 2007) to point out that the device was not yet an end-user device, and you may not even be able to make a smartphone call. OpenMoko, sensibly, provided all with the option to back out right then.

Those who continued were happy to go forward with a first release fully open source GNU/Linux mobile smartphone device, and were fully prepared to travel the journey with OpenMoko as it became usefully functional.

The first batch of mass produced (but only about 1000) devices were manufactured in a factory in Suzhou, China (just west of Shanghai). They were shipped to China customs by 9 July 2007. Once they cleared Customs they travelled to Fremont, California, arriving on 17 September 2007. From there they were shipped to customers world wide. The first batch of shipping was quite expensive, with prices quoted from $50 to $150 for the $300 device. But still those seeing the opportunity to help drive the future were not to be so easily deterred.

Shipping to customers finally started on 24 July 2007, by which time the OpenMoko guys had managed to negotiate better shipping rates. Customers were pleasantly surprised when their credit cards were debited a smaller amount than originally anticipated.

The first developer release production run was sold out by Sunday, 5 August 2007. A second production run was made available for shipping from 10 September 2007.

As a company not used to direct to customer sales, all customers experienced delays while the vendor sorted themselves out and got on top of their logistics. It was, no doubt, a frustrating learning curve for all involved, but then any birth generally comes with pain and effort, and unexpected twists and turns, but in the end, it is all worth it.

The Phase 1 Developer Preview Neo1973 GTA01Bv4 phones were, true to their word, barely functional, even though they had all the basic hardware. On delivery only two of the three core components of the system were installed: the u-boot system which is used to boot the phone, and the kernel, which is the core component of the operating system. The phone was shipped with no root file system. These needed to be downloaded from the Internet and installed. This ensured the initial bunch of developers, world-wide, would be forced to immediately update their smartphones to the most current version of the software.

The first release of OpenMoko became designated as the 2007.1 release. The second major release of the OpenMoko distribution was OpenMoko 2007.2 (initially named OpenMoko 2008, but quickly renamed!). Development began on 26 July 2007, and versions of it became available in August 2007. The plans for this version, as detailed by Michael Laue of OpenMoko, included an improved set of PIM applications, improved theme management (fixing many usability issues with the initial OpenMoko 2007.1), and new formal user interface guidelines. It also included an improved build system for developers, introducing software updates by synchronising with the upstream OpenEmbedded developments.

During August, development slowly progressed, and eventually by mid September a basically, and only barely, functioning telephone was available. On booting the smartphone (after suitable modifications to the uBoot bootargs_base environment variable and appropriate GSM related changes to a configuration file (/etc/matchbox/session) the SIM card's PIN was asked for and telephone calls could be made and received.

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