The theme of this year's Embedded
Linux Conference (ELC) is "Ubiquity" and Dirk Hohndel opened the conference
with a keynote on just that topic. Hohndel, Intel's chief Linux and open
source technologist, looked at how widespread Linux is in consumer
electronics, but also how many other, far less obvious devices it has been
embedded into. In addition, he
discussed some of the problems caused by vendors and manufacturers not
engaging with the
community and how that can lead to suboptimal devices; he also reviewed
the value proposition of Linux, pointing out that the "zero-cost" is not zero
and even if it were, that's not where Linux's strengths lie.
Tim Bird, who organized the conference for the CE Linux Forum (CELF), introduced
Hohndel by calling him "something of a legend in the open source
community" for his work in the community over the last 15 years or
more. Bird recalled some advice Hohndel had given him some years ago that
the secret to having an organization that works well with open source is to
keep everything open. It seems tautological, but that is exactly what Bird
and CELF have done with great success. CELF keeps all of its information
available to everyone, not just members, and welcomes the participation of
the community. In large part, that came straight out of Hohndel's advice.
Hohndel opened his presentation by contrasting the ELC participants with
those that had attended his talk at the Open Source Business Conference
(OSBC) earlier this year. Based on the traditional show of hands, he noted
that there were far fewer lawyers and
far more people who had used Linux at ELC than at OSBC. But part of the
point he was making is that even though the folks at OSBC didn't think they
were using Linux, they almost certainly are—and on a daily basis.
He noted that based on his title, "Ubiquitous Linux", and the
dictionary definition, he could give the shortest keynote on record:
"Linux is everywhere, thank you very much." He pointed out
that servers were the first commercial success for Linux, but were not
really the purpose for which Linux was created. Linus Torvalds's lack of a
was what really spawned Linux. Now, though, you can hardly do anything on
the Internet without bumping into Linux.
If you want to search (Google), buy a book (Amazon), book a flight, trade
NASDAQ stocks, or participate in an auction (eBay), you are dealing with
Linux. In fact, Hohndel says, "if you can spend five minutes on the
Internet and do not run Linux, you're a genius". He asked for a
show of hands to see how many Eee PC owners there were in the audience; he was
disappointed to only see about seven. He claimed that even the lawyers at
OSBC had more of these systems. But computers are
boring, Hohndel says, everyone knows Linux runs on computers.
With about three minutes invested in a Google search, Hohndel was able to
come up with 22 phone vendors with a Linux phone before he stopped
looking. Most of those vendors are in Asia and he was not sure why the US
was "behind the curve". Part of it is that vendors don't talk
about Linux on their phones, he said. Half of the Motorola Razr phones run
Linux, but you wouldn't know that based on the marketing.
He went on to list some of the more common, even well-known, Linux devices
including VoIP phones, digital video recorders, camcorders, digital
cameras, set top boxes, network attached storage (NAS) controllers, and so
on. GPS devices run Linux as well: "Microsoft was kind enough to
point that out to us". He did lament the poor support of standards
in phone browsers, though, pointing out that there is a full Linux system
underneath, so it should be relatively easy to produce a browser that runs
complaint was a bit of a preview of a theme he would come to later: if the
companies would engage with the community, they would get that browser for
Hohndel then started listing things that run Linux but are far less known,
starting with MRI and CAT scan medical devices. Vehicles of all types use
Linux in their avionics (airplanes), in-vehicle entertainment systems (planes,
trains, and cars), repair centers (cars). He noted that for redundancy
purposes, the avionics vendor's system had a matching implementation in
Windows, which wasn't necessarily very comforting to Hohndel.
He noted that he had written kernel code along the way and wasn't
completely comfortable with that code running planes he flies on either.
Hohndel challenged the audience to see how long they could go without
interacting with a Linux system, listing the kinds of things one would have
to do without. He also related a conversation he had with an executive
from a large, unnamed, software company (perhaps located in the Pacific
Northwest) who claimed he never used Linux. By
the end of the conversation, they had come up with a dozen different Linux
systems he used on a daily basis. "I don't think the general public
realizes how much of this scary stuff they have around them," he
He then turned to the question of why Linux is everywhere. He noted that
"because it's free" is the "worst possible
answer" but this supposed zero cost is an answer that is frequently
given by other audiences of his
talks. "If you are using Linux because it's free, you are in for a
very rude awakening".
Intel has hundreds of Linux developers, he said, but "we didn't get
the memo, we actually pay these guys". He started listing some of
the costs associated with using Linux: hardware likely doesn't come with
Linux drivers, or the drivers only work with a different version of the
kernel than the one needed to get other kernel features necessary to the
product, etc. And "then you talk to your lawyers" about
licenses and such. None of that is free.
The strength of Linux is that if you run into a problem, you can solve it
yourself or hire someone to do it for you. He contrasted that with a
proprietary solution where you pay $20,000 up front and some small per-unit
royalty, which might actually be cheaper, at least on paper, but if there
is a problem, you have no leverage with the vendor. How can you meet your
market window when you have no way to fix problems that you encounter, he
Choosing Linux is about customizability as well as security, Hohndel says.
You can control the footprint of the system because you have the source
code and can customize it as needed. Anyone who says they are going with
Linux because of zero cost have proven to Hohndel that they don't
understand what you can do with Linux.
This leads to a problem with the current crop of consumer devices that run
Linux: they don't take advantage of the strengths of the OS. Hohndel
thinks that most vendors using Linux in embedded devices are doing it
wrong. They are focused on the price to the exclusion of building a
community around the device. They don't make any money on a device they
have already sold, so they focus on the next device and ignore the idea
that just by opening things up, they could build a community that would
help them sell that next device.
Hohndel said that being open to the community will reap many benefits. New
features and functionality will be added by others to "do things you
never thought possible". He mentioned Linksys wireless routers and
the DD-WRT and OpenWRT communities that have sprung up around them.
Linksys got many things wrong in the early going, but eventually turned
that around. Companies need to recognize that there many more smart
people outside of their company.
Intel is trying to lead by example, to some extent, with its Moblin
efforts. Intel has turned the "stewardship" over to the Linux
Foundation, but it is in no way abandoning it. According to Hohndel,
engineers have been added to Moblin and the company would like to see what
else the community can do with it. There are lots of things Intel hasn't
thought of, "but the community will, and we hope they do."
Hohndel's talk didn't cover too much in the way of new ground—much of
what he said has been bandied about before—but he tied the ubiquity
of Linux and the foot-dragging of vendors with respect to the community in
an interesting way. For a number of years, folks have been talking about
ways to get Linux into more devices of various sorts; that battle has been
won to a large extent. The next step is to bring the device manufacturers
into the community; that battle has only recently started. One senses that
Linux and the community will win that one as well.
Comments (3 posted)
The GNOME desktop environment made its 2.0 release in
June of 2002, and quickly established a six-month cycle between stable
releases. Now the release team has drafted a plan for GNOME 3.0,
tentatively to arrive two cycles from now in March of 2010. A few
user-visible changes are slated to appear, accompanied by far more
refinements in the dependencies, language bindings, and the structure of
what constitutes the core of GNOME.
Vincent Untz sent a planning
statement to the GNOME desktop development mailing list on April 2 to
outline the big issues and the release team's plan. The discussion
is of course ongoing, but the basic idea consists of three components: new
technologies that will directly affect the user experience, structural
changes to the modules and module sets that define GNOME, and ways to promote
GNOME in hopes of growing the surrounding community.
Zeitgeist and the Shell
The two major user-facing technologies scheduled to debut in GNOME 3.0
are GNOME Shell and GNOME Zeitgeist.
GNOME Shell is a new desktop layer that will handle displaying
application windows, notifications, and other objects. It is intended to
take the place of both the GNOME panel and the window manager, combining
those functions into a unified "scene graph." GNOME Shell will use the
OpenGL-based Clutter for
for applet authors. GNOME Shell will be an option in the GNOME 2.28 stable
release scheduled for the fall of 2009.
GNOME Zeitgeist is a non-hierarchical file management system. Rather
than finding files based on their location in the filesystem, Zeitgeist
provides a suite of alternative interfaces to use: a
last-accessed-on calendar, an easy-to-use bookmark system, tags, and
content-type filters. Other entry points are in the works, including
attached comments and location awareness (as is "files last opened when I
was in Barcelona").
Developers will probably be more interested in changes to the platform
itself, including shuffling out of old libraries, inclusion of new ones,
and possible changes to GNOME's module sets.
According to Andre Klapper, several deprecated libraries will be removed
in 3.0, such as the sound server esound, the file system layer libgnomevfs,
2-D graphics library libart_lgpl, and printing library libgnomeprint. Some
new libraries will be introduced, including the aforementioned Clutter, GeoClue for location-awareness,
and libchamplain for
easy rendering of maps. Also new is the idea of "staging" level libraries;
components hopefully in transition towards full support in a future GNOME
release, but still making API or ABI changes. The key example here is GStreamer, which is widely
used and enjoys tremendous support form the GNOME community, but still
undergoing rapid development. The project also hopes to encourage
developers to increase the usage of non-GNOME dependencies like D-Bus and Avahi.
More subtle changes are likely to come in the way GNOME is packaged.
The current and long standing scheme divides the code into "module sets,"
as Untz and Lucas Rocha explained. Each set contains libraries and
applications for a particular usage profile: the desktop, mobile, developer
tools, platform bindings, and so on. One concern is that the current
module sets make unnecessary divisions. Untz noted that the "developer
platform" modules set (which contains C bindings) should really be combined
with the "platform bindings" module set (which contains bindings for other
languages); keeping them divided adds to the perception that C is blessed,
but other languages are not.
Another problem is that the module sets have slowly become too rigid
over the course of the 2.x releases, no longer encompassing all of the
applications in the GNOME community, and perhaps unintentionally
communicating that some applications are "official" while others are
Untz and Rocha cited several examples where two or more excellent
applications of the same type seem to compete, including Rhythmbox and Banshee, Empathy and Pidgin, and gThumb and F-Spot. If the project selects one for
inclusion in the desktop module set, it inadvertently slights the other,
which is not the intention. "My personal opinion is that we should
have a very small 'desktop core' module set and that's what we build and
package 'officially,' then we have a separate process of certificating apps
as 'GNOME-compliant.'" said Rocha. He continued:
The side-effects of this new way of organizing our releases,
would be: 1. we'd be able to embrace more contributors, as they'd feel more
part of GNOME with their "certified" app. 2. we'd be able to promote more
cool stuff happening inside GNOME community. 3. focus on promoting the user
experience which is common in all GNOME apps.
We close ourselves to a lot of innovation happening "outside" the
official releases. For example, GNOME
is great app, is getting a lot new users, looks good, has some
features that end-users value a lot — GNOME Do happened "outside"
"There's also the fact that we can create a 'brand' that can
easily be recognized by users: if it's a GNOME app, then it's good,"
added Untz. Both agreed that the project should take steps to be more
welcoming to outside projects and contributors.
The third focal point for 3.0 is promoting GNOME better. To be sure,
widening the community through reorganizing the module sets will draw in
more developers, but as Untz observed, developers are only one of three
target audiences. The others are users and vendors — a group that
includes Linux distributions and mobile device makers.
In recent years, Untz felt that the project has not had a "crystal
clear message." It has a good message with respect to usability,
accessibility, and internationalization, but is not as coherent at
presenting the GNOME desktop platform as a whole.
Exactly how to proceed is not as clear as identifying the issue. GNOME
is a large project, but it is in the middle of the stack — neither a
single application that a user can try out with a simple package install,
nor a full operating system comprising a complete solution. GNOME Foundation executive director
Stormy Peters observed that the vast majority of GNOME users use the
environment courtesy of an install-time option from their Linux
distribution. "That said, if a user has a question about a GNOME
feature or application and search for it on the web, they are likely to end
up either on the GNOME pages or a random distributor site (not necessarily
the distribution they are using.) We want to make sure we are ready for
The promotional effort will entail revamping the gnome.org web site, and
a concerted effort from the GNOME marketing team. Untz summarized the
challenge, "the hardest part (setting goals) is done. Now, it's
about achieving them, and even doing more than that if we can."
Just the beginning
With two full release cycles in which to work, the discussion is just
the beginning. There are several additional changes that could make their
way into GNOME 3.0, including replacing the aging gconf configuration system
with dconf, and an emphasis on
"social desktop" technologies like the Telepathy framework.
Rocha and Ken VanDine both observed that they hope the 3.0 cycle widens
the GNOME community. Rocha said he would like to see more space for
experimentation, and VanDine added that he would like to see GNOME project
infrastructure (such as git and bugzilla access) opened up to individual
developers, so that they could create their own branches, propose merges,
However it plays out, Peters is confident it will reflect the wishes of
the GNOME community. "The interesting thing from my perspective is
how this is done in an open fashion. Before plans are even finalized we are
reaching out to the GNOME community, our partners, the distributions and
even users to hear everyone's input and to involve them in the process as
much as they wish to be. It's likely that we'll hear a lot of dissenting
opinions in the process — that's part of a good discussion —
but the end product will be even better for it." The members of the
release team are tracking the process in public; you can
follow the roadmap as it develops from the GNOME project's wiki.
Comments (3 posted)
There are many things which could be said to be a part of the Unix
philosophy. One of those, certainly, is that the operating system should
stay out of the user's way to the greatest extent possible, even if said
user is intent on doing something harmful. There is a classic quote
attributed to Eric Allman:
Unix gives you just enough rope to hang yourself -- and then a
couple of more feet, just to be sure.
Anybody who has administered Unix-like systems for long enough has probably
ended up swinging from that rope at least once. So one would think that
there might be support for work which reduces the potential for
self-hanging. And indeed there is, but that doesn't mean that all such
changes are welcome.
Readers with a lot of spare time and a desire to wander into email
flamewars could probably occupy themselves with this
fedora-devel thread for quite some time. It seems that the X.org developers recently
decided that the three-finger salute (alt-control-backspace) should no longer, by
default, immediately kill the X server. The reasoning behind this change
is clear enough: it can be really irritating to hit the wrong key sequence
and watch all of one's work evaporate before one's eyes. Besides, the
environmental costs of replacing all of those thrown-across-the-room
keyboards is increasingly hard to justify.
Unfortunately for the polar bear population, the change inspired a rather
severe storm of flying keyboards in its own right. A certain Gerry Reno complained on fedora-devel that Fedora should
have overridden X.org's decision regarding this key sequence. Unsatisfied
with the hundreds of responses found there, he took the discussion to the X.org development
list, wherein he claimed:
I read in the Fedora Release Notes the assertions that this change
was due to users complaining about confusion regarding the control
key sequences relating to the X server. That argument was no doubt
made by some in the Emacs community who find that the Emacs key
sequences are similar to the Xorg sequences... I am concerned
because it appears that a tiny minority of Emac [sic] users have managed
to lobby for a very significant change in default behavior for X
server control to the detriment of the majority of users and
administrators in the Linux community.
So, it seems, we have a conspiracy of Emacs users working to deprive the
wider user community of a useful tool. Daniel Stone, the developer who
committed this change, denies
I don't use Emacs myself, and I don't recall a single Emacs user
complaining about accidentally triggering Ctrl-Alt-Backspace on
their way to M-C-E-A-S paste-output-of-doctor-into-irc. Most of the
grumbling came from actual users (i.e. people who don't know what
an X server is, let alone how to configure it, let alone to email
xorg-devel@ about it), rather than people who are perfectly capable
of changing the default.
(It's worth noting that the Fedora Weekly Webcomic blames
a different conspiracy for this change).
In truth, it's clear that a number of reasonably capable users have, at
times, lost work as a result of hitting this key sequence by mistake.
Enough of those users complained that the X.org developers looked at the
issue, and, according to Matthew Garrett,
"Everyone involved agreed that not having a keystroke that caused
immediate data loss was a sensible idea." So, while many of the
world's ills can legitimately be blamed on Emacs users, that would not
appear to be the case this time around.
A reversal of this decision is unlikely. But the development community
would still like to accommodate users who feel the need for the full length
of rope. Said users can reverse the default in their xorg.conf file now,
of course. The openSUSE approach has been to require that the sequence be
hit twice before bringing the world to an end, but it's not clear that
other distributors will follow suit. There has been discussion of moving
the action to a key sequence which is harder to hit by accident. There may
eventually be a per-user configuration option to enable this behavior as
well, though that will require some X server changes first.
Meanwhile, Ubuntu developers have cut
off a classic piece of Unix rope by boldly disabling the
"rm -rf /" command. It seems that the rm
command has a --preserve-root option which prevents the removal
of the root directory. In Ubuntu, this option was not enabled by default,
leading to the bug filed by a concerned user. The distribution's
developers agreed that the ability to remove the root directory was not a
particularly useful feature, and, additionally, that issuing an
"rm -rf /" command was easier than one might expect -
poorly-written scripts are evidently a common source of that kind of
mistake. So, in October, 2008, they made
--preserve-root the default for the Intrepid and Hardy releases.
Some months later, we have started to see complaints like this:
Life is full of dangerous choices. Using rm is one of them, or at
least it should be. It's the price you pay to learn to be careful.
It's the cost of being in control of your system.
Linux only makes one promise and that is your computer will do what
you tell it to, not ask if you're sure, not safeguard you from your
Those who are concerned about this change have more to worry about: it
would appear that Fedora has followed suit. Even so, the rope has not been
shortened by any great length; those wishing to hang themselves can use any
of a number of alternatives, including:
rm -rf /.
rm -rf ~
rm -rf *
and so on. And, of course, the --no-preserve-root option remains
available for those to can't think of any other way to destroy their
But is this contrary to the Unix philosophy? If so, one should certainly
complain about the much more obnoxious
alias rm='rm -i'
.bashrc entries that Fedora has been inflicting on the root account for years.
That is the sort of change that trains users to blindly agree to
anything the system asks; your editor (who immediately removes such things)
feels that overall user safety is not improved by asking "really do this?"
questions all the time.
The truth of the matter, though, is that Linux has moved beyond the "hardy
pioneers on the dangerous frontier" stage. Simple ability to hang one's
self is of limited value even to pioneers; it is positively detrimental to
those who come after. It is not surprising that developers and
distributors are trying to disarm some of the most surprising and least
useful booby traps in the system. That process is likely to continue. But
this is still Linux, so those of us who feel the desire will always be able
to break out the full length of rope; we'll just have to remove the warning
Comments (114 posted)
Recently, Openmoko CEO Sean
Moss-Pultz announced at OpenExpo in Bern that the company was reducing
staff and postponing the development of the GTA03, its first
consumer-oriented phone, in favor of an undefined Project B. Available as a
YouTube video, the
announcement was a confirmation of recent rumors that the company was in
trouble. In fact, many concluded that the announcement meant the end of the
company, or at least the beginning of the end.
Either conclusion is premature, but the announcement does highlight the
problems Openmoko faces as a business, as well as its uncertain
future. These problems are evident not only in the company's history, but
in Moss-Pultz's announcement and the company's web site as well.
Openmoko began in 2006 as a project within First International Computer
(FIC), a Taiwanese computer manufacturer. Soon spun off into a separate
company, Openmoko became the center of a small but active community, due largely to its intention
of using only free software and free hardware. Its popularity was helped by
the fact that, prior to the announcement of Android in November 2007, it
was the first effort to introduce free software into the mobile phone
The company and community began work on Openmoko Linux and the hardware to
run it on. As a development community, Openmoko has had some success, with
GNU/Linux, FreeBSD, and L4 kernels ported to its devices, as well as
versions of the Google Android operating system and a number of utilities
However, as a commercial manufacturer, Openmoko has struggled continuously
to coordinate its software and hardware in all its products, up to and
including the GTA03. As Moss-Pultz explained
in February 2007, "each hardware revision takes at least one month of
time. Each month without stable hardware means serious delays for
software. One time we received the wrong memory from our vendors and we
failed to catch this before production. Another time some key components
ran out of supply."
Despite such difficulties, in July 2007, the company produced the Neo 1973,
a development phone, following it with the Neo FreeRunner in June 2008.
Moss-Pultz in his announcement last week, the Neo sold 3,000 units, and the
FreeRunner 10,000 units. These are modest numbers that, more than anything
else, indicate just how small a player Openmoko is.
Openmoko's progress has not been helped by the countless complaints and
problems about the FreeRunner, all of which also affect the development of
its successor, the GTA03. For one thing, the phone does not support 3G standards for
telecommunication hardware. In his announcement, Moss-Pultz explains this
lack as being due partly to the difficulty of implementing 3G without using
proprietary software and hardware, and partly due to the fact that doing so
would increase the cost by at least two-thirds. But, although these are
sound reasons, without 3G support, Openmoko's products are inevitably going
to be seen by customers as inferior to other mobile devices.
Moreover, if you look through the Openmoko community mailing list over
the last few months, very few aspects of the FreeRunner have escaped being
mentioned in bug reports.
Many of these bugs have been collected on the Neo
FreeRunner Hardware Issues page on the community wiki. Active bugs
include poor audio quality, the inability to boot without a charger, the
corruption of the SD card's partition table when using the suspend
function, incompatibility with SIM cards, problems with the GPS feature,
unreliable reporting of the battery charge, and short battery life —
and this is far from a complete list. Workarounds exist for some of these
problems, but the disheartening cumulative effect is suggested by the
desperate-sounding plea near the top of the page: "Please DON'T PANIC
when reading this page. Please give Openmoko employees time to investigate
these issues and to develop a solution." Even making allowances for
the fact that the FreeRunner is not intended for general consumers, such
problems give it the appearance of having been released before it was
With such a history, nobody should be surprised that the company has
recently seen an exodus
of many of its employees. To what extent these departures were voluntary or
layoffs is uncertain.
But, either way, they increase the difficulties for the company. Harald
Welte, the former Lead System Architect at OpenMoko, wrote in his
blog, "There used to be really great engineers at Openmoko some time
ago, but at least a number of good, senior folks are no longer working
there at this point in time, or are working on a much smaller scope for
Openmoko Inc." In addition, Welte suggested that, by not making any
public statements about the departure of key staff, Openmoko is
contributing to the rumors and uncertainties that already surround
it. Increasingly, the impression of a struggling company is becoming
impossible to avoid.
The business environment and decisions
In the video, Moss-Pultz talks candidly about
the challenges that Openmoko faces and the mistakes it has made.
Some of the challenges are ones that no company can do much about. For
Moss-Pultz began by explaining that, while small companies or individuals
can disrupt software markets, the expense of developing new computer chips
and the difficulty of finding a place to manufacture them means that
existing companies have a practical monopoly on hardware.
Later in the video, he revealed that, although Openmoko had enough monthly
sales to break even by the end of 2008, the recession has caused a serious
decline in sales in 2009. Having not anticipated this downturn, the company
is left with a large inventory of unused hardware components, a
depreciating investment that can only be recouped by sales. Meanwhile,
extra inventory may incur storage costs if the company is like many
high-tech startups and lacks its own warehouses.
At the same time, Moss-Pultz acknowledged that the company has made
tactical errors. He suggested that the company has been slow to realize
that "you can't compile hardware" — by which he
apparently meant that fixing errors in hardware is much more expensive and
time-consuming than debugging software. In addition, Moss-Pultz said that
the company had tried to develop too many markets at the same time. It has
also attempted to manage direct world sales by itself, rather than going
through an established distributor, an effort that has caused it endless
time and effort in dealing with custom duties and varying regulations.
More specifically, Moss-Pultz pointed to two direct mistakes. First,
Openmoko could have sold more than 3000 Neos if it had not been overly
conservative in ordering components (a situation that might lead observers
to wonder whether the overstocking of the FreeRunner was over-compensation
for this earlier error). Second, in wishing to honor its commitments, the
company spent months directing what Moss-Pultz estimates as 90% of its
resources to an unspecified single contract. This situation was a
particular drain on resources because it occurred after Openmoko became a
separate company and could no longer draw upon the resources of FIC.
All these events, both external and internal, have taken place against a
background of both too little and too much publicity, according to
Moss-Pultz. On the one hand, outside of the free software community,
Openmoko remains little known among mobile manufacturers and
distributors. This admission suggests that the company has been doing
little or no advertising in its market niche. On the other hand, within the
free software community, Openmoko was widely hailed as "the iPhone-killer,"
even after the company tried to explain that it was not trying to compete
against Apple's popular device. Such a view created inflated expectations
that a company of less than sixty employees could have no hope of matching,
even if it made no mis-steps. It may also have pressured Openmoko
executives into making hasty decisions, although Moss-Pultz did not mention
such a possibility.
The web site evidence
Listening to Moss-Pultz, what seems clear is that, for all the surrounding
buzz, Openmoko has suffered largely from an inexperienced team that was
learning as it staggered towards market. This impression is confirmed by
the company web site, which is
surprisingly sparse and unprofessional for a tech company shipping
Even by the sometimes eccentric standards of free software, the site seems
strangely incomplete. The site's front page has no explanation of what the
company does. Even the About page contains
only the translation of a Chinese poem and a few flowery generalities, and
no mention whatsoever of the management team.
Nor can you buy directly from the company. Instead, clicking on the Store
link in the menu takes you to the distribution page, where you find that
Openmoko has only six distributors in the United States and Canada, fifteen
in Europe, and one in Asia. Many of these distributors are obviously
minor. That brings up another problem for Openmoko: As countless other
startups have found, you cannot get major distributors to carry your
products unless you have a track record, but you can hardly hope to get a
track record unless the major distributors carry your products.
The point is, the company web site creates an impression of a company that
is not ready to do business. By comparison, the Openmoko community page is far
more detailed, which suggests that Openmoko executives are far more
comfortable in a community of developers than in a board-room. In this
light, the company's problems and mistakes seem completely understandable.
Next, Plan B
The necessity for Moss-Pultz's announcement was spelled out by an email
to the Openmoko community by vice-president of marketing Steve Mosher. The
company can only make money through completing development on either the
GTA03 or the mysterious Project B, but cannot afford to complete both just
now. Given that completing the GTA03 would cost three times as much, the
sensible choice is to focus first on Project B.
This logic seems clear enough. Yet it would be clearer still if anyone gave
an indication of what Project B actually was. All Moss-Pultz said on the
subject in his video is that "I always have a backup plan, no matter
what I do" and that this focus is a "short-term
adjustment." Observers have suggested that Project B is a "non-mobile
/ non-smartphone" or, alternatively, that it will involve using Android
to reduce development costs. But the truth is that no one has any concrete
No matter what Project B turns out to be, whether it can turn Openmoko
around remains to be seen. Welte commented
that, "Over time, I have started to have severe doubts whether
Openmoko Inc. is really the most productive and/or best environment to do
this kind of development. Priorities and directions changed a lot."
But at least with this announcement, he added, "I no longer have to
hope that Openmoko Inc. gets their act together to actually get an (to my
standards) acceptable product out into the market." Possibly, Welte
can be dismissed as a disgruntled former employee, but, by the time that a
company makes the sorts of cuts that Openmoko has made, the chances of
reversing the slide into bankruptcy seem small.
Certainly, the attempts by Openmoko executives to reassure everyone have
not convinced most observers. Many, such as Nilay Patel at engadget, wondered
whether news indicate the lack of a market for free hardware devices in the
However, such speculations are based on too little evidence. At least two-thirds
of all startups fail within ten years, and the rate is generally
assumed to be even higher in technology companies. Openmoko is only a
single company in the mobile space, and, if you look at Openmoko's past
record, nothing indicates that the company's problems are due specifically
to its business plan. A simpler explanation is that the problems are due
simply to inexperience and poor decisions. In the end, Openmoko's future
depends far more on its executives' ability to learn from past mistakes
than on their choice of ideals.
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