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Trolltech axes the Greenphone

The Linux developer says it will now focus on its Qtopia platform and leave the hassles of hardware to other companies.

The mobile Linux development company Trolltech says that it has sold out of its Greenphone reference handsets and that it will not reorder further units, because there are now suitable alternatives in the marketplace.

Trolltech launched in 2006, the first fully open handset designed for the development of open-source applications. Running on Trolltech's Qtopia platform, the device was supposed to stimulate the growth of mobile Linux, and the company is adamant that it has done just that.

"We did it to catalyze an ecosystem, as well as for internal use," said David Bialer, the manager of Trolltech's partner community.

Bialer said the 2-year-old architecture of the Greenphone was no longer adequate, so Trolltech would like to target "more modern 3G phones." The OpenMoko Neo1973 device, which can now run a port of Qtopia, also appears to be filling much of the need for hackable Linux handsets.

"We looked at the market and saw other devices out there, like OpenMoko's device," said Bialer. "They can do it cheaper and faster, so it doesn't make sense for us to be doing that. We don't want to be a hardware company."

Although Trolltech has not released exact figures, it is understood that just over 1,000 Greenphones were sold, making the device relatively low-volume and therefore expensive to manufacture.

Bialer claimed that demand had recently been increasing for the Greenphone, but Trolltech would try to divert that demand to OpenMoko. "We're not (discontinuing the Greenphone) because there is no demand," he said. "It is an older design and we are not the best hardware company. It's a lot of work shipping these phones all over the world, dealing with customs and cracked screens. We realized this is not our core competency."

Bialer confessed that, despite hopes that the Greenphone project would break even, it had lost money. This, he said, was because the company ended up using more units internally than it had anticipated. "A lot of our developers have two or three of them," he said. "We probably underestimated how many we were going to consume ourselves."

Still, the project accomplished something significant, said Bialer. "It really helped the community. For internal use it gave us a platform to develop and improve the product quality. It gave us a lot of exposure, being seen as a thought leader in this area, and it started some more discussions. And we got a lot of cool applications out of it," he said. "We gave out 65 phones as a grant and we're about to get a lot of those back now. A wide range of things were proposed, a lot of RSS and specialized vertical things for scientific purposes, anything from recipe books to Google Apps to GPS services. We're hoping we'll start seeing these now."

The success of the Greenphone was hailed by Stephen Wolak of Betavine, the Vodafone-sponsored open-source community. "At Vodafone Betavine we launched a Web portal to interact with the developer community," said Wolak. "Greenphone was an innovative program that responded well to open-source developers and mobile application experimentation. At Vodafone Betavine we believe there is a growing community and developer interest in open platform devices. Greenphone has certainly helped in the visibility of this growing trend."

Trolltech is now also doing "a lot of work" with another open-source initiative, OpenEmbedded. "Part of the problem with an open (operating system) is that it has been difficult for us to keep supporting people who want to do things at the OS level," Bialer said. "OpenEmbedded supports about 120 devices. We're supporting OpenEmbedded as a vehicle so we can easily put Qtopia on other devices."

Bialer denied that it was the advent of Apple's touch-sensitive iPhone that had put the nail in the Greenphone's coffin. The OpenMoko Neo1973 sports a touch screen, unlike the Greenphone.

"That was a coincidence," he said. "There is a lot of attention now going towards touchscreen, but we have already had the (touchscreen and Qtopia-based) Motoming phone that did very well in Asia. It is very interesting that Apple did that."

"It just so happens that the OpenMoko device is touch screen, so it gives us the ability to experiment on that user interface," said Bialer. "OpenMoko can also detect orientation and has Wi-Fi. Although it is not 3G, we have seen some designs out there which are 3G. We're interested in supporting other designs too, and convincing manufacturers that what you receive for opening up your device is a lot of innovation."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.