LJ Archive


Mixing Up a Generative Mobile Feast

Doc Searls

Issue #172, August 2008

Why chase the iPhone, when we can free the world with open mobile things?

I've been writing, one way or another, for Linux Journal since 1996. Through that whole time, we've focused more aspirational attention on one receding goal than on any other: the desktop. Our progress has been asymptotic, on a curve that approaches but never arrives. And it won't, as long as we're chasing Apple and Microsoft, rather than blazing trails where both those companies can only follow.

One trail is the MID: the Mobile Internet Device. In last month's UpFront section, we reported that some of these seemed to be on track for public unveiling at the Summer Olympics in Beijing, which run from August 8–24. Because this is our August issue, it's possibly happening as you read this. LinuxWorld Expo is also happening this month, in San Francisco, California, from August 4–7.

But the more interesting trail, the one where we can score the biggest win of all, is in the mobile phone frontier. At the far edge of that is a point where the distinction between the MID and the phone verges on zero. Between here and there are many fun possibilities, and a few scary ones.

The fun trail follows a vector we can project by connecting dots drawn earlier this year. One was the purchase of Trolltech by Nokia. Another was news that Nokia was helping port Ubuntu Linux to the ARM architecture (used by the Nokia N810, among many other devices)—atop reports that the Hildon Input Method (HIM) already had migrated from Nokia's Maemo to Ubuntu Mobile. Another one—and perhaps the biggest—was news that a new broadband venture was planned by Sprint, Clearwire, Comcast, Google, Time Warner and Intel.

It's easy to project a lot of baggage onto that last one, and to get lost in a fog of vendor sports color commentary, but the Linux angle is relatively straightforward. Google's Android—a Linux-based software platform for open mobile devices (primarily mobile phones)—gets a shot at success via a coalition of partners that can produce or support many different kinds of devices and new wireless ways to connect them to the Net.

Another potential green field will be opened by 802.11y. Think of it as high-power Wi-Fi, governed by a “lite” licensing regime approved by the FCC about a year ago. With this regime, licensees pay a small fee for a non-exclusive nationwide license. They, then pay a smaller additional fee for every high-powered base station they deploy. Nobody on the receiving end requires a license. Nor do the operators. Licensing allows stations to be identifiable, which allows multiple operators politely to avoid interference. The specification covers signaling protocols both to discover and prevent interference. Proponents, including Peter Ecclesine of Cisco (from whom I learned what I just wrote), believe 802.11y holds much promise for a world where individuals and communities can connect just about any way they like, free from rule by giant carriers.

Throw OLPC Wi-Fi-based mesh networking in there too. It has lots of possibilities outside its original mission as well.

Nobody knows yet where any of this will go. But the contest, as usual, will be between freedom and control, open and closed, proprietary and public domain. The difference this time will be the playing field, which will be inside companies as well as out in the marketplace. On one side will be those that advocate locked-down appliances with a reduced subset of features that advantage only the company selling the devices and its partners in the equipment, network or content production and distribution businesses. On the other side will be those who understand that markets grow fastest on generative foundations—ones that support, with little or no bias, a maximum variety of uses.

The best example of a locked-down mobile appliance is the iPhone. Although it's beautiful, useful and ground-breaking, the iPhone also will remain closed to all but the applications Apple approves, many of those for Apple's own purposes. Apple will continue to pioneer here, but with a closed and controlling bias.

We have no equivalent best examples of generative mobile devices. Nokia's N series (770 800, 810...) is an early prototype, and there still is no widespread cellular (or cell-like) system that provides uncrippled Net connectivity alongside VoIP service.

But, generative mobile is the goal. To mix metaphors a bit, think of the means as a recipe. The ingredients are there. The table is set. What we need now are some chefs to mix the ingredients together and produce some meals that are appetizing to the marketplace.

As I explained in this column last month, the best examples of recent generative inventions are the white-box PC and the Internet. The PC started changing the world in the 1980s, and the Internet started doing the same in the 1990s. Our hope now is that the world will be changed in the 2000s by generative mobile devices that connect to an equally generative Internet.

The one sure thing is that Linux will be the base ingredient. The rest is up to the chefs.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and a fellow with both the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

LJ Archive