Interview with Sean Moss-Pultz

Who wants one of those “brickable” or “open” phones when you can have a truly open Linux-based phone? Sean Moss-Pultz on the OpenMoko Project, the Neo1973 and what it really means to be free. Bricks not included.

AD: Please tell us about yourself.

SM-P: I'm from San Diego, California, and I've been living in Taiwan now for about three and a half years. Right now I'm the head of a department inside FIC. FIC is a really large Taiwanese OEM/ODM that builds notebooks and desktops for big global brands, and then, the new thing we are working on is mobile devices. We are working to create the project OpenMoko and turn it into Moko the company. So, once OpenMoko is spun off correctly, I will be the President of that company.

AD: How did you get started with computers?

SM-P: I've been trying to think about this for quite some time. I think I got my first computer...I'm pretty sure it was an 8086...the first x86 processor ever. After that, almost every single PC there was, I've played with it. When I was around 12, I started really taking them apart and then building them. I figured out that you could go buy parts and build your own PC, so I started my own business servicing people down the street and selling them PCs.

AD: So, you were an entrepreneur early on?

SM-P: Yeah.

AD: Did you just network with your friends and family?

SM-P: Yeah, I guess I kind of started that way. My parents, when I was young, would refuse to let me have a TV in the house, but they gave me a computer. So, I always learned how to mess around with computers for that reason.

AD: What moved you from working with desktops to embedded devices?

SM-P: I guess what the easier question is what moved me to Taiwan. While I was here, I just kind of got thrown into mobile devices. I've always messed around with computers, but I've never done what they always call, “Computer Engineering”. In school, I studied physics, so when I finished school, I got the itch to travel. To make a really long story short, I had a good friend from graduate school who was Taiwanese, and he said, “Hey you should come out here and check out Taiwan.” So I came out here and actually thought it was pretty cool...it was about as far away as you could get from San Diego, and so I figured I might as well come out here.

I started working and I couldn't speak the language, so they said “you're going to be a Software Engineer.” Then we started working on mobile phones, and this is where I got started, if that makes sense.

AD: Sure. Can you talk about some mobile phones you've worked on? Or is that still under NDA?

SM-P: Sure, but it's actually somewhat different from the mobile phones we have in the States or in Europe. There's this technology here called PHS. It was started in Japan in about 1996, if I remember correctly. Think of it kind of like a digital cordless phone that's a bit more powerful, and that can roam on both cellular networks and your own home cordless network. In China, because the Chinese government didn't want to run copper wire to all these small villages, they just basically adopted this PHS phone as their “fixed-line phone”. So they have 100 million subscribers in China right now for PHS. It was growing really really fast, the market, and this was about three years ago. Of course [the Taiwanese] decided to do a “me too” product—you know, they have it; we should do it too. So I spent way too much time working on a product that ultimately was a pretty big failure, but I learned a lot about the process.

AD: I've read, much like you highlighted, that because there would be so much infrastructure and cost involved in running traditional copper and so forth, that the Chinese made a complete jump to better technology than we have in the States.

SM-P: I think this is a trend you'll see more and more. When you come from behind, you have the luxury of second putting; you can see what the person in front of you did.

AD: Plus, there's probably not a lot of the same restrictions we have, such as intellectual property (IP).

SM-P: There is none. Taiwan is actually, really, I don't want to say strict about IP, but they do follow it. China is basically a free-for-all.

AD: So you have this PHS technology, which I'm assuming is kind of a gap filler. Say you dropped off a supported area, to sort of a hotspot, could you keep talking?

SM-P: Yeah. It's extremely low-power. If you do it right, make the phone correct, the phone will last two or three or four weeks, or something like that, on a single battery charge. It's really cheap too. It's supposed to be a low-cost phone, and it's not really made for roaming.

AD: You said the PHS device didn't really pan out in the marketplace, but you knew someone from graduate school who brought you over there, and who then helped you get into FIC. Is that correct?

SM-P: Basically, the company I started working for was a startup funded by FIC, doing PHS. In Taiwan, or I guess the FIC group, the parent company, also owns one of the operators in Taiwan. So, after we did the PHS, we were brought back to the “mothership” and started this GSM group. It's the mobile group inside FIC to do GSM phones, and also CDMA phones, but mainly GSM. Now it's called mobility.

AD: Is it called the GSM group within FIC, mobility or something else?

SM-P: Now it's called mobility.

AD: You said FIC is a large OEM/ODM, don't they make a lot of devices for Nokia as well?

SM-P: Not Nokia. FIC as a company is 27 years old. Its core business is all notebook, desktop and consumer electronic devices. It didn't do phones until about two years ago, when we came in.

AD: What moved FIC into the direction of doing a user-modifiable cell phone like the OpenMoko?

SM-P: Oh, well, me kicking and screaming for a long time. No, really, me kicking and screaming for a long time. If you think about it, it's totally...contrary to the core business of this company. My job kind of was shifted to being a product manager, and this was sort of at my own request. When we finished this PHS phone, I thought the technology we did was really cool, but the whole market positioning, the whole design, everything was just wrong, and so that's why it failed, or at least, how I convinced myself of why it failed. I asked them to give me a chance to be a product manager. And, what I thought about were two things: first, what's the device I want (and that was an open phone); and the second was, if we could do it all over again, start from scratch, more or less, with GSM, how would we do it? Well, you need to do it in such a way that you could compete on a global scale, and I think the only way to do that is with free software.

AD: So, you took the PHS model and kind of mapped it on to doing a GSM consumer device, and you are trying to get the community involved with developing the software and hardware?

SM-P: The actual hardware, the actual schematics, are closed. But, we take really, really, really high-res pictures and put them on the Web, so it's about as open as I can possibly get. FIC is still a hardware company, so the idea of open hardware still kind of scares them. But, the open software is okay—internally, they're really warming up to the idea, especially the CEO and Chairman, they've been huge supporters of us.

AD: I was recently in the Freenode #openmoko channel, and someone stated it would be interesting once a Chinese company takes your model and “copycats” the device. The user clarified that question by stating it would be a total win for FIC. What do you think?

SM-P: Yeah. Definitely. In fact, putting on my business and marketing hat, I think the only way you can compete, in this market here, is if you have a product that, if it is copied, it gets better. If they don't copy it, it doesn't get better. The whole point of free software is that you want people to copy it, and if people don't copy it, if they don't work on it, if they don't contribute to it, it doesn't get better.

AD: Can you give us a deeper explanation about what the OpenMoko is? Is it a philosophy? Is it a device and a philosophy?

SM-P: OpenMoko is a platform. Let me just say OpenMoko, Inc., and we'll get back to that later. So, OpenMoko is this platform, and it's more than just this first device we're making. The first device we're making is called the Neo1973. It's kind of a geeky name, so let me just digress for a minute. In 1973, inside Motorola, there was an Engineer by the last name of Cooper, and he made the first cellular call. He basically invented the cellular phone. In Latin, neo means new. So this is like the new phone. It's kind of the idea that you have this industry that has really changed the way the phone works. People now can use the phone anywhere—when you're on the go, when you travel. In a sense, this change from a fixed line to the mobile came at a cost, and this cost is lack of user control—it's lack of the ability to plug this thing in to any network you want to. So, what we think is that when you open up this phone, you create conditions for growth much like you see on the Internet, where you can see all kinds of interesting things coming out of it, not just technologies. In the mobile world, all you see is technologies, MMS, SMS, this IPTV stuff, but then on the Internet, you see technologies sure, but you also see companies. You see huge communities, and you see all these interesting things forming. I think that when you open up the phone, essentially you turn it in to the Internet, where each node of the system, of the network—in this case, each phone—is as important as the next one. Does that make sense?

AD: So the large telecommunications companies, the ones with large fixed infrastructure to derive income, went mobile and when they did, they took the same model of actually having control over all of that and applied it to the mobile devices. This is changing that model, because not only is every device potentially network-independent using the open Atheros AR6k chipset, but each device easily can go provider to provider using a SIM card and GSM. The owner is also in control of the full stack of software, not just the vendor.

SM-P: We actually have these things that we call our “freedom requirements”. It's basically that any piece of software that runs inside the Linux kernel...we require that they're free software.

AD: So going back to OpenMoko, Inc., it's going to be a mobile device company? A mobile phone company?

SM-P: We have only one goal. It's a very simple goal. It's to create the world's best open mobile devices. It's everything we're going to do. It's going to be super focused, and the devices we create will be based on free and open-source software. They'll all have a combination of cellular technologies, wireless technologies for Wi-Fi networks and also GPS.

AD: You mentioned the term open source. Now, what does that mean to FIC, and to you as a developer on the OpenMoko Project?

SM-P: I think the best way to describe it is that to FIC, it levels the playing field. We don't need to have to negotiate the best license to get a better deal than the other Taiwanese OEMs with Microsoft. We just go download the code we want and start working on it. To myself, as a person, independent of FIC, I believe that the core technologies...that we use in our lives, I think that we need to be the ones who are are able to shape these things, to change these things to make them so they are relevant to our own individual needs. This is what “open” does for you. It lets you change these things in the way that you think is correct, in the way that works best for your life. I like to think that the mobile phone is our most immediate form of computing. It's our generation's method of communication. So, an open phone is sort of like democratizing this communication method.

AD: So, it's bringing it down to the people, instead of some large company controlling how you communicate with people.

SM-P: Yeah. Communication was always this social thing; it was never centralized—like, hey, I speak to this person and he or she speaks to you, but the mobile world is like this. So I think that when you have it open, that when you can connect to different networks and when people can even connect peer-to-peer, I think it will be interesting. I'm really curious to see what happens. Honestly, I don't know what will happen.

AD: How many developers are working on the project?

SM-P: At FIC, we have a lot of people working on the hardware and software—it's kind of hard to say, and I can't really talk about too many specifics publicly. Right now, it's about 40 people, if you include both hardware and software. It's not big enough, let me put it that way—I need a lot more people.

AD: What about other open-source developers?

SM-P: We have this community mailing list, which gets a lot of really interesting topics, especially lately, and I think there is something like more than 5,000 people on it. Actively contributing, again it's kind of hard to say, but I think there is a lot, really a lot, and it's growing, growing by the day right now.

AD: Do you have an open-source code repository where people can get commit access?

SM-P: Yes. We have all the things you would expect to see from an open-source project. I have a background, not so much in open-source development, but I've used open source for a long time, but then the people that I went and worked with, and hired, they've been developing Linux, the kernel, one of them since 1992. They absolutely understand every last detail of the free and open-source culture and how to create projects that are done in this style, with this method. So, all the things you'd expect to see, the wiki, the mailing list, source code management, it's all there.

AD: So how does one get involved?

SM-P: It's no different from any other open-source project. If you go to OpenMoko.org, we have all the resources there. You can start reading the mailing lists, and all the bugs, all the features we're starting to implement are all in Bugzilla, right now. You can look on there and see what needs to be fixed, what needs to be added, and start submitting patches. Then, we give people commit access when we start building up a level of trust—a relationship with them. A couple people, for example, for the calculator application and the RSS-reader application, have commit access. They just started by writing the applications in their free time, and then they submitted them to us.

AD: You just mentioned writing applications. That's a big departure for many phones currently on the market that are completely closed. Do you have an application framework, and is it documented?

SM-P: We do. It's still in the early stages. I have to be honest, right now, we're still in the very early development stages, but it's actually a really good time to get involved, because you can help influence, you can help shape how this thing will mature, and then when end users actually use it, you will have a big hand in how it looks to them. We have a framework that makes it easy to develop basic applications. We're trying to add a lot more stuff to it that handles networks more transparently. We really want to have the notion of each application being able to get its location. Can it get GPS? Can it read the MAC address from the network? Can it read the GSM towers' addresses? It can go through all these different possibilities. We're trying to develop that framework. It's going to take some time, but we definitely have this vision in mind of creating a very easy framework to develop for.

AD: You mentioned a calculator application and an RSS newsreader. Is there also a Web browser and an e-mail application in the works?

SM-P: Yes. We were selected for the Google Summer of Code, and one of the guys is working on WebKit, so we'll have a browser really soon. I've seen shots of the rendering working. The e-mail stuff we're actually really behind on, but we're starting to work on that—we're cranking on it. We went with WebKit just because it was so small and so light and very, very fast. It should support most of the Web 2.0 stuff you would want to see.

AD: What are some cool ideas that will differentiate OpenMoko from other devices on the market, other than being an open phone platform?

SM-P: Okay, I'll give you two. The first is an idea that came up a couple of weeks ago on the e-mail list that I thought was really interesting. So, you have a To-Do list basically, and then the To-Do lists are location-based. So, you have all these items—when I go to the supermarket, they remind me, buy this, buy that, buy that—and I think that was really cool. It's so simple, but these are the kinds of things that will make our lives easier. We even have a really, really high-performance GPS chipset in our device, so it will know its location too for that reason. The GPS network is totally public, and it also has assisted GPS. The way the assisted GPS part works is it downloads the satellite information from the Internet, and that one, FIC as a company has to pay for that, but you get it for free. But, if you want the pure, standard GPS, that's always free—totally free.

AD: The Neo1973 is a great device, but then again, I also write code. What about my parents and grandparents, and people who are not technologically savvy? Will the device be just as usable as others on the market?

SM-P: Okay, so if I had to step back and put on my prediction hat, if you look at the Internet right now, all the core technologies that have driven this, all the Web sites you look at right now, almost all the e-mail you receive, these are all based upon existing free and open-source software. FOSS, within a time period that most people can't even begin to imagine, can overtake a proprietary competitor, and it can dominate. So I think the answer is absolutely, yes, this will be a device that will completely change the way people think about phones, but I think we have a little while to get there. I have no doubt we'll get there, but it will be at least six months before we get there.

AD: So, you think the device's general release will be fall 2007, or maybe early winter or spring 2008?

SM-P: We do all product development in three phases. In phase zero, we give it to the super geeks, who are really, really, high-profile FOSS developers. Phase one is where we just went a couple weeks ago—where we sell the device as a developer edition. It's not to be used as a day-to-day phone, but you still can do all kinds of cool development work on it, and that's now. And then, in October 2007, we have it to where it will be called an end-user device, but let me really clarify what I mean by end user. At that point, I think it's still going to be a very technically savvy person. It will be someone who is kind of a power user at that point. In quarter one, spring of next year, I think that's the point when we'll start seeing a critical mass of applications—some really interesting new ones coming out. We do have a package manager that will allow you to install applications graphically, and that will be really easy to use. That's kind of our entrance into the mainstream market.

AD: What package manager do you use?

SM-P: It's very similar to Debian's apt-get; it's called ipk. It's based on OpenEmbedded. We use OpenEmbedded to build the whole distribution of OpenMoko. When you use that—we get ipk for free, basically—the exact build system that we use to build the images is also open source, of course. You can download that.

AD: Is it in the master makefile for OpenEmbedded?

SM-P: We have our own OpenEmbedded tree. We're trying to get it merged back upstream, but there was a whole bunch of development on the trunk, so we ended up just doing our own temporary branch....Our lead framework and application architect is one of the original founders of OpenEmbedded, so one of his goals is to get it back in there for sure.

AD: When will it be available in stores?

SM-P: We were going to start selling a version of this phone in October 2007—I think at that point, it will be ready for a technical user. [As far as] how much longer it takes before it transitions to the typical end user, like my mom or dad, we will keep selling it and play that by ear. My gut tells me something like February or March 2008.

AD: So, what's the gimmick? Will it be tied to a provider like AT&T where you have to sign a contract for three years?

SM-P: Yeah, we're going to sell it locked down to AT&T's network [laughs]. No. No. No. It will always be an unlocked phone. We're going to sell it from OpenMoko.com direct. Right now, we're talking with a number of carriers, and we're probably going to pick one carrier. Not to do some sort of locked-down exclusive thing, that's not the point, it's to get into a carrier who will help us educate the end user as to why an open phone is this incredibly cool thing. I mean, it really needs a process. We really need to talk with people to educate them about what their phones could potentially do.

AD: Are you going to start heavily marketing it in Taiwan first, or are you going to rely more on the Internet? Are you going to specify certain areas of the world you want to market it in first?

SM-P: Our plan going into next year is mainly grass-roots marketing. Because of where we are located geographically, it makes a lot of sense for us to target Asia. For the first half of this year, we've been almost exclusively just doing Europe and North America. Mainly because that's just kind of the culture where most of us are from and we understand that better. Lately, I've been really building up this team internally and finding a lot of talent in Taiwan and China. So, starting this month, we are going to go in and try to find good developers—really start to promote in Asia. Still from this grass-roots-type standpoint, from really bottom-up marketing, not a top-down blanket with an ad campaign.

AD: Is there anything else I might have left out?

SM-P: Yes. We definitely need people to get involved from the educational standpoint. I think if you look at this device, where it has the potential to make the biggest impact is in schools, in learning. If you're a computer science student and you want to study operating systems, you want to study software development, I personally think the mobile phone is the PC of the future. It will leapfrog the PC in a lot of these developing markets. I think there is no better time to get involved, and really, OpenMoko is the right platform to get involved with, because it's all based on FOSS. The things you work on can transfer to the desktop and vice versa, so that's why I think it's a really great opportunity, and we'd love help. We'd love people to e-mail us, get on our mailing list, talk with us about how we can promote this in universities and how we can promote it in academic settings. I think this is where the real, first, interesting usage scenarios will come out....It's these things that will inspire whatever the next phone is. If you kind of step back and look at this, our goal with OpenMoko was not to create a phone better than the iPhone. I mean, I don't even really care about that to tell you the truth. It's not to make a user interface more refined than Nokia. It's basically to change the way the phone works; it's to change the way it operates. If you look at the mobile phone, it has the processing power of a computer, say, three or four years ago, maybe five years ago. Especially when you start having it be able to connect to networks, you have this device that's incredibly powerful, but because it's been closed, people haven't been able to access that. It's been very centralized as far as what you can and cannot do to it. So, I think people who understand socially open technologies and architecture, and these are very much university students, I think they'll get it right away and start playing with it and come up with new ideas that will be really attractive.

AD: Thank you very much for talking with us.

SM-P: It's really my pleasure.

Adam M. Dutko is a Systems Administrator for a Fortune 500, maintains the mrxvt and astyle packages for Fedora, brews beer, programs an electronic radio show at 89.3 WCSB called “Machine Code” and works on Wireless Sensor Networks at the Cleveland State University Software Engineering Lab. He currently lives in Lakewood, Ohio, with his wonderful wife, two dogs and two cats. You can read more about him at littlehat.homelinux.org:8000.

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