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Open Source Cell Phones

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 1/22/2010

Open source is all the buzz these days in the cell phone world, from Google's Android OS to DIY Linux hacking enthusiasts. This article goes through some of the open source operating systems that have been put on phones to date.

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    Open Source: Advantages & Disadvantages for Cell Phones

    With regards to cell phones, open source bears a number of advantages and disadvantages, both for the cell phone carriers and to the consumers.

    Currently, most operating systems that run on cell phone are proprietary to the company that manufactures them: there are precious few third party operating systems out there. There is little room for open source alternatives to come and pry a place for themselves on the market.

    The most distinct advantage for cell phone carriers is the small size of Linux and Linux-based operating systems, as well as their efficiency. Windows-based and other operating systems for cell phones have come under a fair bit of fire for their slowness and bugginess, and to some, open source seems to supply a way out of that mess.

    However, this is more than a story of efficiency. One of the major differences between the proprietary and open source models is how development proceeds. Under the open source model, it is a mass, grass roots endeavor, with some centralization under project managers and the like, but is largely unpredictable and difficult to control. Not exactly the stablest premise, coming from the traditionalist camp: it'd be a huge upset, and mobile companies just aren't comfortable with that. Change is dangerous, even if theoretically it's for the better—and even if it's synonymous with innovation.

    In the words of one commentator of this vein: “Linux the OS— the kernel, the memory manager— is attractive to phone manufacturers, Linux the philosophy— users banding together ad hoc to create new things— is anathema to wireless carriers." So, it is argued that the open source model that does work for cell phones is not the one elevated by idealistic open source advocates.

    How this will all spell out is anyone's guess. Without further ado, some current open source cell phones:

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    iPhone

    Not too many people realize this, but the iPhone is also an open source hybrid, though admittedly one that leans more on the proprietary side of things. The operating system of the iPhone, OS X, is based on FreeBSD, an open source operating system. However, development of the iPhone and its OS X are not in and of themselves open source. They allow 3rd party apps to be developed within a very limited sandbox, which bears at least a passing resemblance to an open source model, but only those approved by Apple may be distributed, and then only through the App Store. So, while some elements of the open source model exist within the iPhone, it is not truly open source.

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    Android & and the Open Handset Alliance

    The Android OS, contrary to popular belief, is not entirely the creation of Google. It was initially developed by Android Inc., which was then purchased by Google, and then by the Open Handset Alliance (of which Google is a member.) The first version of the OS was announced with the founding of the Open Handset Alliance, and since then, Google has released—most--of the code for Android under open source licenses.

    The version of the Android OS that went on the T-Mobile G1 phones was trumped up by the developers of Google as the “first complete and highly functional, mass market, Open Source mobile platform." It's certainly the version receiving all the buzz, and for some good reason.

    Now, back to that mostly open source bit. For the individual, customized OS for individual phones, there is a certain tendency to add proprietary pieces to the open core.

    However, Android was not the first open source platform for mobile phones, despite the buzz:

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    OpenMoko

    Phones running on the OpenMoko OS generally attempt to market themselves more at the nerdier part of the world population, the open source idealists. They run on a Linux-based OS under an open source software license. This is a good example of a geek phone, one that probably won't ever hit the mainstream, but has its own limited niche market amongst the open source nerds of the world. Further plans for the OpenMoko plan have been canceled.

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    Other Phones

    Other phone companies have tinkered with Linux as their OS from time to time, though these experiments have seldom lasted, the phone companies returning back to their original proprietary operating systems. One of the current phones out there is the Nokia N900, a Linux smartphone often described as the “hacker's phone." Whether this particular arrangement lasts and beats the general track record is anyone's guess.

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    DIY Linux

    And then, there's the truly hardcore: those who hack their phones and put Linux on them, though certainly not a significant portion of the marketshare, nor condoned by the mobile carriers. More common amongst phones is jailbreaking it to various degrees, be it installing a whole new OS on the phone or just enabling or installing a few capabilities left closed due to proprietary measures. Whatever the degree, this is a market that no mobile phone carrier is likely to touch except to discourage.