Running an Open Source Phone Part 1

Introduction - Why do we need an Free Software phone?

As we all know, when purchasing a new phone, it often has a slew of restrictions. On the telephony side, you are usually only allowed to use an authorised type of SIM card in the phone but there are far greater restrictions as to what you can do with the software on the phone. Almost all phones out there use proprietary software and, in the cases where a Free Software kernel is used, it is always hidden away and you can't modify your phone by installing a free GNU/Linux distribution on it since only authorised, signed operating systems will be booted.

Besides the software in the phone not being Free (as in freedom) software, there are often arbitrary restrictions on how you can use the phone. For example, DRM to restrict how you can play the music you have legally purchased, you cannot install you own applications but only applications approved by the Telco and/or phone vendor - think of the iPhone.

I am writing a series of articles in order to share my experiences and hopefully help people get familiar with Free Software on mobile devices, specifically cellular telephones. This first article will focus on a high level introduction to some of the hardware and software available for open source/free software phones. For those interested - I am using a Neo Freerunner running QTextended as my daily phone.

The Hardware

All this Free Software is no good if there is no phone you can install it on so I will now give a non-exhaustive list of the mobile devices I know about on which you can install free software.

The Neo Freerunner

The Neo Freerunner is designed to be an open phone from the ground up - the manufacturing diagrams are published as CAD files which anyone can use as a basis for another phone. The Neo Freerunner is the most promising, truly open phone that I am aware of and has a highly active community developing software for the Neo Freerunner and future phones from Openmoko.

The software on this phone (covered in Part 2) is not quite ready for end-user use but can be used as a daily phone by enthusiasts. That said, I expect that basic functionality will be stable in half a year.

Google G1

The Google G1 is a Linux based phone brought out by Google, it seems they want to compete with the Apple iPhone. The retail G1 is a locked phone that will only run authorised images so no change there. However, you can gain access to the full functionality of your phone in two ways; rooting the phone or buying the developer G1 called the "Android Dev Phone 1". Once this has been done you can proceed to experiment to your hearts content with the underlying Linux system making up the G1 - with some limitations.

The Trolltech Greenphone

The now discontinued Green phone used a software stack called Qtopia created by Trolltech (now owned by Nokia) - the same people who develop the QT toolkit in use by such projects as KDE and countless other, smaller applications.

The idea behind the Greenphone was to promote Qtopia as a mobile development platform and not as an end-user telephone. Trolltech no longer ships the Greenphone and the Qtopia software stack as been renamed to QTextended. QTextended has just released version 4.4.3, which will be the last release of the QTextended platform as this too is being discontinued but a community maintained version will still be available and may even become better than the Trolltech version.

Nokia Internet Tablet

The Nokia N810 supports the running of Open Source software - the main software stack target at this device is the Maemo plaform but it also supports QTextended and Debian GNU/Linux. By installing Debian on the N810 you can access to the vast software repositories available to Debian systems.


Yes, you read correctly, you can now run Linux on your iPhone. This project is still in its very early stages and already seems to be laying the groundwork quite well. Definitely worth keeping an eye on. Also, I suspect you will need a jail-broken phone in order to install Linux on your iPhone and Apple may release updates to their boot loader ROM that will make it difficult to install Linux on the iPhone.

And, let's not forget, the ever popular Netbooks being made by seemingly all major computer manufacturers. While not strictly speaking a phone or a "tablet", they are nevertheless very mobile and so I will cover them here. The recent Netbook trend all started with the Asus Eee PC which made people realise that they just need "good enough" computing rather than a super computer on their lap.

One can easily install any Linux distribution on these devices and, when combined with a mobile broadband device (aka "dongle"), you have a powerful, mobile Internet device. Especially useful for those of us that are on call!

A very good history of the Netbook can be found at Arstechnica.

Next Article

In the next article I will be taking a deeper look at the various Free Software stacks that are available for running on your mobile device. Stay tuned!