I've recently purchased a Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. I spent a lot of time reviewing the reviews, checking the spec's, comparing it to other devices, and it came out on top. The deciding factor was a little application that can be downloaded and installed. It's called "I-am-free" and is maintained by Owen Williams. This application displays a picture of a shiny gem, nothing more. Now, I've not actually installed it, and have no intention of doing so. The fact that it exists is enough.
It's existence is part joke but mostly a statement of beliefs. You see, for a few days, there existed an application on the iPhone store called "I Am Rich." It was put up by Armin Heinrich and it displays a picture of a shiny gem, nothing more. The difference between this application and the I-am-free application is, of course, price. The "I Am Rich" app cost $999, the maximum the iPhone store allows. If you think that no one would be insane enough to spend a grand on something that does nothing, well, eight people say your wrong. I suppose it would be more than eight if Apple hadn't pulled it off the iPhone store within a few days.
Thus, we have the real difference between the iPhone and the N810. The iPhone is a locked-down proprietary system where nearly everything you do with it will cost money. The N810 runs a version of Linux and nearly everything you can do with it is free. Sure, the N810 includes a GPS navigation application that wants you to pay for a subscription to get the advanced features, but there are several other completely free mapping apps that you can install. The N810 software repositories, the Linux way of distributing software, contain hundreds of other programs available, all for free.
Linux is a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) operating system. That means that it's free, as in free beer, and free, as in free speech; both forms of freedom are important. Free, as in beer, means the the software is free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) and all the other stupid tricks companies put in to stop people from using their products without permission. DRM systems, these days, are so complicated that they are often the primary difficulty encountered while installing and using a piece of software. Free, as in beer, also means that you can use the software for free, which is good, very good. FOSS also means that if the software doesn't work the way you want, you are free to change it. This second freedom, free as in free speech, means that the source-code for the software is available to anyone that wants it. That means that you can modify it to meet your requirements. Or, if you're not a programmer, you can pay someone else to modify it. This kind of freedom may not be critical to your average Joe playing with an N810, but if you were a company using an application for business, then the ability to customise the code can be very useful. More importantly, it allows communities of people to collect around applications or particular hardware platforms, like the N810, and improve them. These communities often drive the development of free, as in beer, applications. Of the two FOSS freedoms, free as in free speech is the most important over the long term.
I know, because there is a vibrant community of people supporting the N810, that my new purchase will still be useful long after iPhone users have to send their toy in to Apple to get a replacement battery installed. Yes, it's so easy to change the N810's battery that I'm thinking of carrying spares while travelling. I know the N810 software repositories will exist long after Apple has yanked the last iPhone app from its store. Yes, anyone can put up an N810 repository if they want, several have already; I could put up my own repository and complile my own applications if I really wanted to, and I might at some point. And, when the day comes that technology standards have long-since left both the N810 and the iPhone behind, I know I will find a niche use for the N810 while the iPhone will be landfill. I can already think of several, from a car OBDII reader (car computer interface) to a digital photo frame. Being based on FOSS, the possibilites are only limited by the imagination.