Third-party applications for mobile devices are nothing new, but open platforms, and the freedom to develop, like with Googles Android, mean we can expect a tidal wave of development that will evolve the industry.
Treo owners have been installing applications on their Palm OS smart phones for years. Even with supposedly closed smart phones like the iPhone, people are willing to hack their phone and risk voiding their warranty in order to create applications that Apple does not provide. (With all of this activity, Steve Jobs recently announced that an SDK will be available for the iPhone in February 2008.)
But is all this working around the manufacturers intentions really necessary? There are a legion of developers with a strong desire to improve their cell phones any way they can think of. If only they had a platform that was open—source code and all—and that actually encouraged them to come up with new applications rather than limit them or forbid them outright.
Thats the promise of open-source cell phones. With open-source operating systems, developers have both the right and the support for modifying their cell phones&3151;and thats a benefit for them and the rest of us too.
Although there are open-source cell phone operating systems, like OpenMoko and Trolltechs Qtopia, none of them have significantly penetrated the market—yet. But Googles Android, a new open-source operating system, may change this. Now developers will be able to get their creative groove on and make their own applications (as well as take Google up on its $10 million bounty for the best).
According to Rich Miner, the lead of wireless strategy for Google, "[Android is] going to be completely open. Were open-sourcing the entire phone stack, using the most commercial-friendly open-source license there is, the Apache version 2 license, which lets people build all kinds of derivative products based on the open-source code base."
The squeaky wheel
What happens when developers are not limited to out-of-the-box features? The first thing they do is fix annoyances. Want to use your music as your ringtone, but the provider wants to charge you an extra $1 to buy a song you already own? No longer an issue. Want to use a VOIP (voice over IP) application your cell phone provider doesnt approve of? No problemo. Want to stream mobile video in a format the networks applications dont support? Done.
The second thing open-source developers do is create new applications that may be of interest only to a few people—or might be the next big thing. You might not need an SSH client to log into a server you maintain, but there are plenty of system administrators on the hoof who consider that an essential tool.
Businesses such as mobile networks want a mass-market need to produce a new application, so they are not interested in providing applications for minority users. But its also the reason why the next big paradigm shifts in mobile device use will likely come from open-source developers, and not the big telecos or their partners.
Benoit Schillings, chief technology officer of TrollTech, which develops software for open-source and commercial applications for embedded devices like cell phones, said: "In the end, 90 percent of these applications will be junk, but 10 percent [will] make the industry evolve."
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