It's not uncommon for technically-inclined folks to build their own PCs out of basic parts; although it's not necessarily cheaper to do so, one can build exactly the setup one wants, with exactly the components and function. In addition, we shouldn't discount the satisfaction of having put together a useful device with one's own hands. But are cellular phones significantly harder to build than PCs? What would it take to make a homebrew phone that would still work on standard networks? A handful of hackers want to find out.
Surj Patel and Deva Seetharam, in the UK, and Casey Halverson, in Seattle, Washington, are all trying to build GSM-network mobile phones out of readily-available parts, to meet their own particular needs. In both projects, however, the core of the phone will be a tiny Linux computer. This isn't all that surprising; aside from issues of even getting access to proprietary phone operating systems, only Linux would offer the enterprising phone hacker the flexibility needed to get the phone to do something new.
This "something new" could be integration of phone addresses with social networking software to create active phonebooks:
Patel, who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab for several years before moving to U.K.-based carrier Orange, and ultimately to his own start-up, on Monday talked with CNET News.com about melding social applications like LinkedIn or MySpace with a phone's address book.
That type of service, which connects sprawling lists of people into overlapping groups of "friends," and allows visitors to see who is online or active, would be a much better model for a cell phone's lists of contacts, he said. But today's cell phones are virtually impossible to tweak in that way.
The actual applications are somewhat secondary to the application potential. It has become increasingly common for mobile phone network operators to hobble the functionality of the phones they offer -- making it so that (for example) Bluetooth can sync phone numbers with your computer, but isn't allowed to transfer photos from the phone, or that (for example) a phone that can play music can only play a limited number, in particular formats -- in order to sell additional services to customers. The ability to build one's own mobile device means far greater control over what the phone can do, when, and how.
Observers note the strong parallel between these mobile phone hackers and the early days of the personal computer era, where garage inventors could come up with a hand-built device that could do more than the commercial computers of the time. Not because the homebrew computers were faster or more powerful, but because they were more flexible.
Of course, the network operators can still put limits on how the networks are used, limits that unfortunately have more to do with selling services than network health (don't you dare try to use Skype over that EVDO Internet connection). That's why one recurring idea is to have both WiFi with voice over IP software and normal cellular networking on the same device, using the Internet where possible, but falling back to the more limited (but more common) cellular service as needed.
The parallel between building one's own computer and building one's own cell phone falls apart in an important category, however: cost. Whereas a home-built PC will cost about as much as one purchased from a retailer, the parts alone for the homebrew phones run at least $400, and possibly more. Mobile phone companies subsidize the phones they sell to their customers in most cases, and have certainly learned how to use economies of scale. One doesn't build a homemade mobile phone to keep costs down.
One builds a homemade mobile phone to keep one's options open.
Jamais, this guys [link] are are part of the same group, but I find what they are doing even funkier - an open source WiFi phone. They got a business model too:
Because all of the technology within the phones will be open source, and the hardware specifications will be openly available, revenue will be based on hardware sales. There will be no licensing fees for software; the only associated development costs will be in marketing/distribution and hardware production. I would like to release the phones for under $100 if possible. We are asking for a slightly larger up front cost for free service forever.
This is an excellent example of the Age of Amateurs struggling uphill against classic human impulses to control through hierarchy.
The need was illustrated during the Hurricane Katrina crisis, when half a million americnas had fully-charged, sophisticated two way radios in their pockets and no way to use them as anything more than door stops.
(The Transparent Society)
What is needed goes beyond skype-wifi opportunism. What we need is a parallel utility to empower citizens to use their cell phones when all macro systems are down. I am working with a few others on some ideas but it is hard to convince FEMA and Homeland security that citizen self-organization is even a desireable thing. (For more on this see an essay on the war between citizens and professionals at www.amazon.com/shorts)
I hope this DIY project sails ahead.
Self Citizen Organization is a GREAT idea, and it's already happening-- ever hear of REACT? :)