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Beyond the iPhone: What open source means for mobile

While Apple is getting the headlines, some of the most interesting work in mobile is open source.

The launch of Apple's iPhone 3G S has justifiably caught the media's attention, what with its elegant design and speedy performance. But for all the noise that Apple is making in mobile, open source--not Apple--may well be doing the most to define the future of mobile communications, as two leading open-source projects suggest.

No, I'm not talking about the Palm Pre, with its Linux-based operating system and its new open-source applications portal. Nor am I referring to Google Android.

Rather, I'm referring to the InSTEDD project, which The Economist recently highlighted, as well as GNU Radio, the project made popular by Path Intelligence, a company I've profiled before on CNET.

Both companies/projects are interesting because they treat mobile as a data source, not as a computer.

In the case of InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters), it's a nonprofit that helps developing nations coordinate disaster relief efforts by helping relief agencies share, aggregate, and analyze data from mobile phones.

InSTEDD's GeoChat technology accomplishes this by enabling mobile phone users to broadcast alerts ("Typhoon has hit our city"), but it becomes even more interesting when combined with InSTEDD's Mesh4x technology:

Mesh4x allows information to flow between established applications (like Excel, Access, GoogleEarth, MySQL, Oracle and many others), and between devices (laptops, smartphones, PDAs, and servers) reliably, selectively, and securely in a distributed "data mesh". If necessary, Mesh4X can synchronize data over nothing but a stream of SMS messages, merely by plugging an ordinary cellphone into a laptop.

While InSTEDD has open-sourced the technology to help improve disaster relief, it's not hard to see how the technology could be used for commercial applications.

Both can generate, aggregate, and analyze data that can save the world...or a company's bottom line.

Indeed, this is what Path Intelligence has done with GNU Radio. GNU Radio describes itself as a "free software development toolkit that provides the signal processing runtime and processing blocks to implement software radios using readily available, low-cost external RF hardware and commodity processors." Sounds complicated, right?

Well, in the hands of Path Intelligence, such mobile data becomes a way to track consumers through a shopping mall, for example, so as to identify which marketing displays are most effective, the best places to locate high-margin products, etc. While the company is primarily focused on such a retail application today, its markets are much broader.

Neither InSTEDD nor Path Intelligence makes a shiny device that people will covet and buy. Both, however, can use those shiny devices to generate, aggregate, and analyze data that can save the world...or a company's bottom line.

In this way, these open-source projects, even more than Apple, may well prove to be the cutting edge of mobile. It's all about the data.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.