We’ve grown used to having general-purpose computers on our desks and being able to change everything about them - from adding new hardware to modifying operating system kernels to get better performance. We can’t do that with phones. The most hardware you can easily add is a memory card or a Bluetooth GPS. Often new applications have to be certified by operators, and even when there’s a new version of a phone operating system it can be a long wait before (or even if) it’s ready for you to install on your handset. Applications are constrained to work with tightly controlled APIs, with little chance of getting the most from phone hardware.
Operator locked-down devices are (at the very least) extremely annoying. You know that there’s much more you can do on a device that’s as powerful as a desktop PC, but you’re trapped in a maze of dumbed-down applications and inane ring tones designed to keep you inside your operator’s walled garden. A capable computing device has been turned into a revenue generating machine for the network - not the pocket Internet device you really want.
There’s a change in the wind. Independent groups of developers have unlocked existing hardware, while a new generation of open phones is just starting to appear. They’re not consumer devices yet, and they don’t have the polish of Apple’s iPhone, but they are open - ready for you to create your own custom versions of the phone operating system, build your own applications that can take advantage of the phone’s hardware or install the software you want from an online service.
These are the phones you can hack - and at this stage they’re really phones for Linux hackers, but they’re also a first look at the future of ultra-mobile computing. The first two Linux-based hackable phones are Trolltech’s QTopia-based Greenphone and FIC’s Neo1973 OpenMoko.