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Portrait of a Linux iPhone-killer wannabe

Vendor claims open source leads to a high level of customization

By David Haskin
August 2, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In the race to be the first "iPhone killer," the most unlikely but perhaps most intriguing candidate is based on a new Linux platform with the peculiar name OpenMoko.

Major mobile phone vendors are tripping over themselves to release devices to compete with Apple's iPhone.LG Electronics Inc. has its Prada, High Tech Computer Corp. has the Touch, and Samsung Group will release its Ultra Smart F700.

However, OpenMoko comes from a low-visibility, Taipei-based company, First International Computer Inc. (FIC), which is best known for manufacturing laptops for vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co.

<br></br >The Neo 1973

The Neo 1973 based on the OpenMoki platform
The first phone based on the OpenMoko platform, FIC's Neo 1973, is currently available to developers, with wide release expected this autumn. Can a relatively unknown vendor using a new Linux platform succeed in such a highly competitive market?

"The likelihood of this product becoming mainstream is very low," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

However, Sean Moss-Pultz, primary architect of OpenMoko, disagrees. In an interview, he didn't refer to the Neo 1973 as an "iPhone-killer" -- the media and bloggers have been doing that. However, he did say he expects the device, with its iPhone-like touch screen, to be a hit. That's because application developers will have complete access to the system.

"Most of the [Linux] consumer devices don't give developers access to low-level hardware stuff," Moss-Pultz said. "We want [developers] involved in the most fundamental parts, such as the kernel and device drivers."

That, in turn, is leading to a flurry of development that will make the device so feature-rich and customizable that it will be compelling for both consumers and enterprises, Moss-Pultz said.

The first attempt

Even without a flock of busy developers, the Neo 1973, with its expected price of $300 for an unlocked version, should be attractive, Moss-Pultz said.

He said the device will work over Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) cellular networks (AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile in the U.S.), although the first version will support only older, modem-speed General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) cellular data access. By contrast, the iPhone has been criticized for supporting only enhanced data rates for GSM evolution (EDGE) cellular data technology, which is significantly faster than GPRS but slower than 3G.

"Initially, data speeds won't be anything to write home about," Moss-Pultz acknowledged. "But we're working on 3G versions." Beyond that, the Neo 1973 should be an eye-grabber with its 2.8-in., 640-by-480-pixel resolution and a touchscreen display, Moss-Pultz said.

"It'll be like reading something printed on paper," Moss-Pultz said. The device will be fast, sporting a 400-MHz processor, and it will have significant graphics acceleration for gaming and video. It also will support Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. In addition, the device will be suitably diminutive at about 4.7 by 2.6 x 0.7 in., although it will weigh a somewhat beefy 6.5 ounces.

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