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The iPhone alternative (for freedom lovers)

Want to know how to get an even better mobile Internet experience, without having to do business with either AT&T or Apple--and no contracts?

Minor update: Boost uses the Nextel/Sprint network, not Alltel.

Apple's iPhones seem to have a monopoly when it comes to usable mobile Web browsing. Until now, freedom-loving users not wishing to get into bed with Steve Jobs were, for the most part, out of luck. This article explains how to get an even better mobile Internet experience, without having to do business with either AT&T or Apple--with no contracts and no $60 per month bill just to surf the Net.

Apple's iPhone: No user apps for you!

The iPhone is clearly the must-have device of the digerati. All of my colleagues seem to have one, and frankly, I'm rather jealous. However, I have several deep moral problems with the iPhone that have prevented me from giving Apple my money.

Steve Jobs treats his customers with contempt. On a "stock" iPhone, you have no control over the applications you can install, cannot use MP3 ringtones, and can't even download songs to iTunes over the 802.11 connection. Yes, you can join the customer vs. company arms race, and try to hack your phone. However, the next time a software update is released, you may find yourself the owner of a $400 brick.

In addition to my problems with Apple, I really dislike the wireless carrier it's gotten into bed with--AT&T. My complaints about AT&T's profit-motivated collaboration with the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program have been frequently aired on this blog. Furthermore, the company only really offers practical data services to customers who sign up for a two-year contract--something I am unwilling to do. Finally, I see no reason to hand over $15 of my monthly wireless bill to Steve Jobs.

I want a device that gives me freedom, that does not lock me into a specific platform, and that is sold by a company that treats its customers with respect. I want to be able to leverage the significant base of existing Linux/open-source applications. I want to be able to run Firefox and the hundreds of community-made extensions for the browser. I want to download MP3s and podcasts directly to the device, and I'd prefer a real GPS chip, not some triangulation hack.

Furthermore, I am extremely nomadic. I can rarely plan more than six months into the future, and can't predict the country I'll call home a year from now. Thus, a two-year contract with AT&T is simply not an option.

Help from Helsinki

Luckily, help has arrived. The solution to my problems does not come from Cupertino, Calif., but Finland.

N810 Internet Tablet Nokia

Nokia has gotten quite a bit of press over the last year for its N800 and N810 Internet Tablets. The devices run Linux, and are built on an open-source core. They include 802.11 Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth (including A2DP stereo audio) and a built-in Webcam that can be used for videoconferencing.

On the software side, the devices ship with a Mozilla/Firefox-derived browser and support the hugely popular Web-advertisement blocking extension Adblock Plus. Internet telephony is made possible through Skype and Gizmo, both of which come preinstalled. Prefer to use someone else (or your own Asterisk server)? No problem--SIP-based voice over IP software is also included.

What else?....

A BitTorrent client? Yep. Encrypted instant messaging for AIM and Google talk users? Yep.

Want to sniff a wireless network, break a WEP encryption key, or hack into a server? No problem. Metasploit, Kismit, and nmap are all supported.

Would you like to hook up an external hard disk, an Ethernet adapter, or a thumb drive? No problem. The tablets all include a USB port that supports "host mode."

The N800 ($200) and N810 ($400) have practically the same hardware powering them, the only real difference is the GPS chip and slide-out hardware keyboard that is included with the N810.

In terms of technology and software, the N810 does everything and more that the iPhone does. The only real problem thus far has been the issue of Internet connectivity. That is, when there is no open Wi-Fi access point nearby, my N810 has been pretty useless.

The data problem

The data offerings from U.S. mobile providers are, sadly, pretty awful. While users on some expensive plans can surf the Web from their phones, tethering (the act of sharing your phone's data connection with another device) is often forbidden. Verizon went so far as to totally cripple the Bluetooth functionality in several of its Motorola phones.

Worse, to get data, users are often required to sign lengthy contracts with the wireless carriers. A few do offer data services to prepaid users, but at rates that'll make you cry. For example, AT&T prepaid customers can purchase monthly allotments of bandwidth--1MB for $5 and 5MB for $10. Data hungry users who go over their 5MB per month are charged 1 cent per kilobyte. Want to use AT&T's prepaid plan to look at a few Flickr photos? That'll be $24.07 please.

The Boost connection

Thanks to YoDude from the Internet Tablet Talk forums, I now have a solution that works, with no contract, and at a price that I can afford.

Boost is a prepaid wireless company that resells access to the Sprint/Nextel nationwide wireless networks. Their voice services aren't particularly attractive (at 20 cents per minute). However, the Sprint/Nextel network uses Motorola's iDEN technology and provides a free, always-on data connection to phone customers. The data service isn't speedy, at 19.2 kbps, it harks back to the days of dial-up. For a free service, however, it simply can't be beat.

Following YoDude's advice, I went onto eBay and purchased a used Nextel/Motorola i605 phone. There are plenty of these listed for sale online, and can be found for about $40 including shipping. I also purchased a new Boost phone SIM (subscriber identity module) card for $2 including shipping.

A week later, with the phone and SIM in hand, I called up Boost to activate. The process took about 20 minutes, required no hacking of devices, flashing of firmware, or anything similar. I gave Boost my credit card number, and the company loaded $20 onto my account.

I then followed YoDude's simple instructions for setting up the Nokia Tablet with a Boost iDEN phone, and within minutes, I was using my N810 to check my e-mail via the Bluetooth-provided cellular data link.

Boost requires that you load up your phone with a minimum of $20 in credit at least once every 90 days. Voice service costs 10 to 20 cents a minute, depending on the time of day. Interesting enough, incoming text messages are free--which is not something I've seen any other prepaid carrier offer. Thus, for a little bit more than $6 per month, mobile users can get access to an always-on data connection that is perfect for e-mail, IM, and Google searches.

I won't lie. It's not speedy. But for airports, waiting rooms, and the bank lobby--it's perfect. By switching to IMAP based e-mail and an offline RSS reader, it's actually surprisingly usable.

For those of you with a thirst for faster data, and a willingness to pay for it, there may be other options. The uber-phone hackers at HowardForums report that Verizon offers prepaid users access to its 115KB/s EVDO data service for 99 cents per day. Setting this up seems to require a fair bit of hackery, including re-flashing special firmware onto your phone. Furthermore, at $30 per month, this is quite a bit more than I want to pay just to be able to google in line at the grocery store.

Got a better solution? Found a way to get a high-speed Bluetooth tethered connection at a low price? Leave a note in the comments, and I'll be sure to update this post.

Disclaimer: While I paid retail for a Nokia N800, the company did give me a heavily discounted N810 as part of a developer program. I interviewed with Nokia for a summer internship last week. I interned with Apple (along with several other companies) in the past.