Postcard from: A basement in London


Evgeny Morozov of Transitions Online joined about 100 professionals from the mobile, media, and web industries at mobileCampLondon from 28-29 September to debate the future of the mobile field.

Here’s a look at what resonated with him:
The underground nature of mobileCamp – underground literally; it was held in a basement – ensured the focus on cutting-edge topics which will probably emerge in mainstream conferences only a few months, if not years, later.

The two-day event followed the format of a BarCamp, which meant that there were no formal speeches. Everyone had a chance to put their name on a whiteboard and present on whatever they liked. It was an excellent forum for discussing some of the most exciting and transformative developments in the mobile industry.

One of the most exciting presentations given Friday was that of Sascha Pohflepp, who is an artist and designer based in Berlin but currently living in London. He is also an active contributor to the popular art blog, We Make Money Not Art.

He has been researching the world of the networked things and exploring what happens if things we encounter in our daily lives can be used for two simultaneous purposes. He is intrigued by how Internet connects people and creates shared space for them; for him the web is just one big collection of human traces.

What excites him are radical changes in digital photography: a drop in cost and many more cameras on the market; that digital cameras automatically generate a lot of meta-data, like time stamps; the fact that cameras are now almost ubiquitous, bundled with mobile phones and allow to take hundreds of pictures per day.

These shifts have significantly reshaped the way we communicate. For example, many of us treat the photos we upload on photo-sharing sites like Flickr (Pohflepp says around 1 billion photos are viewed on Flickr daily) as a means of communication with our friends and the outside world. This is a relatively new development - we didn’t do this with analog pictures.

One of Pohflepp’s projects, dubbed “Buttons,” explores these changes in full. He shows a video demonstration of a black camera with just one button—that for taking photos. But when you press the button, the “camera” records the time, then it contacts Flickr and asks it to send back a picture that somebody else has uploaded to Flickr (it only searches for photos with the identical time stamp).

The “camera” itself is nothing but a SonyEricsson K750i wrapped inside laser-cut acrylic with a button coming from a Agfamatic 901 which is combined with an electronic button underneath. The phone runs custom software written in Mobile Processing. Everything seems amazingly simple.

“Essentially, it is a camera that - using a mobile communication device - takes others’ photos,” says Pohflepp.

The presentation that drew most attention Friday, though, was that of Michael Shilo from OpenMoko, the new, simple, free and promising mobile phone operating system. OpenMoko’s website pitches it as “the World’s First Integrated Open Source Mobile Communications Platform.”

It debuted almost at the same time as iPhone, and this has led to endless comparisons between the two (it helped that the OpenMoko phone also had a touch screen and a very nice user interface).

Shiloh has been particularly vocal about the role that community plays in the whole process. What makes OpenMoko different from the iPhone is transparency. Its development has taken place at a grassroots level. One of the developers in the audience made a comment that most of the original interface design was done on an e-mail list, with people interchanging comments.

Shiloh mentions that his colleagues at OpenMoko are very receptive to the needs of the community of users, especially at this early development stage.

“We want people to come to us and tell us what they really want in our phone. For us, it’s not a matter of building a piece of hardware. We want the community to commit and tell us that if you have this particular piece of software in the next version, they can build much bigger project with this. Then we would listen, review, and possibly add this piece of software. This has already happened in the short life-time of the project.”

Shiloh says that when the project started, Wi-Fi support wasn’t there, primarily out of financial concerns—it was too expensive to add. But then the community said they would really need it and now OpenMoko supports Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest difficulties in building OpenMoko was educating chip makers, who are not among the most transparent companies out there. One was to solve this problem was to organize Appetite for Freedom tour this year, where the creators of OpenMoko went on tour to talk and explain to chip makers that OpenMoko is not going to hurt them. Their efforts paid off - OpenMoko has open Wi-Fi, open cpiu, open graphics acceleration, open third-motion sensors, open GPS. It’s almost 100 percent open, in other words.

The first global shipments of OpenMoko went on the market in July 2007 (GTA 01 model) and the several thousand copies were sold out in the first four days. A newer model - GTA02, also 100 percent open - will hit the shelves in November 2007. And by 2008 OpenMoko promises a completely new design – and not just phones!

Sure, not everything works smoothly and there are some glitches. But instead of looking at them as a bug, you should think about it as a feature, jokes Shiloh.

“You as a developer get access to the device one year before the rest of the world. You should use this opportunity to go back to the company and tell us that some things are screwed and won’t work and tell us to do what we need to do.”