New phones offer ultimate customization

July 7, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Two phones go on sale this week accompanied by a lot of buzz.

One is the new iPhone 3G, offered for the first time in the United States in a version free of a contract. (Keep in mind, the $199 model of the iPhone will still require a contract with AT&T. It's the more suped-up and more expensive version that will be free of a contract.) The other is the Neo, a new phone not just unlocked but completely programmable.

The last phase in mobile phones was about gadgets: cameras and GPS and watching live TV. The next step is all about the software and about personalizing your device.

"One of the things people like about the iPhone," says Michael Shiloh, "is that they can customize it by putting the applications on it they want, changing the background, making it look the way they want, so that it becomes theirs."

Shiloh represents the Openmoko Project, which is taking that a step further this week with the first do-it-yourself phone kit, their new Neo Freerunner. This international organization of largely volunteer open source programmers, is making the $400 phone available online as part of an industry-wide movement to let users modify their phones.

With the Neo phone, you can change the look, the functions, the carrier, the language, the operating system, even the plastic case by using open source blueprints.

"What interests me about this project," adds Shiloh, "is what people will do with this phone. What will people write in the open source community that I can't even imagine? It's the things that are completely unexpected that I'm really looking forward to."

What is expected is lots of competition in personalized phones. Also, the Freerunner is more suited for programmers than consumers. Phone retailer Richard Park of San Francisco's Eternal Wireless likes his Helio, but cautions that smart phones aren't for everybody. Many still like to use a phone just to make a call. Imagine that!

"They don't care," says Park. "They just want to be able to use the cellphone and have the voice service wherever they're at." Still, 2/3 of us use a mobile phone for something more than just a phone call. Despite the economy, phone sales had a better first quarter this year than last. And smart phones are the fastest-growing mobile segment, with a 30% growth rate forecast by research firm IDC. That's better growth than for laptop computers.

------- Links -------

Openmoko Project
Openmoko Phone
iPhone 3G
IDC Report on Mobile Phone Growth

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