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Re: [GNU-linux-libre] Smartphones and freedom
Re: [GNU-linux-libre] Smartphones and freedom
Thu, 20 Jan 2011 09:26:05 +0100
On Thu, 20 Jan 2011 09:34:47 +0200, "A.J. Venter"
it's good to read you again!
Been a while since I've been active on this list - but I would like
your feedback about this matter firstly to verify some of the
information I have, and to discuss how we as free software activists
and developers ought to be responding to things as they stand.
Currently it's heartening to see the growth of Google's Android
platform in the smartphone space - modern day smartphones are, for
matter of practicality - small computers and the same issues of
freedom we see on computers must apply there. I say this is
as Android is currently the most free smartphone operating system to
make any impact on the market. OpenMoko is more free I believe but
limited to a single device, not widely available (I am not aware of
anybody selling them in my country for example) and very expensive
to the lack of network operator contracts.
Smartphone Freedom comparison (thanks to a LibrePlanet Italia member
Replicant, a fully free software Android:
F-Droid, a libre alternative to google Market that includes only libre
F-droid will be included by default in Replicant as soon as we release.
So looking at android - the OS as it comes from google has four major
freedom issues that stand out I'll look at them separately.
The first is google's own non-free application stack. Here google may
actually have done freedom an inadvertent favor though. Their
insistence that custom mods not ship the stack with their roms
actually forced those customized stacks to be more free (though they
didn't prevent them shipping it at all, and most of them ship it as a
separate package). However if you use a stack like CyanogenMod then
it's easy to avoid installing this software. It does cut you off from
the google marketplace - but since google does not restrict
alternative marketplaces and several are already in the offing
(including one from Amazon) nothing actually prevents us from
developing and pushing a free software marketplace app - and only
listing free apps in it (more on this in a bit).
All Google apps (including Google Market) are removed from Replicant.
We now have our libre market called F-Droid thanks to CiaranG.
The second issue is that of drivers. It is my understanding that it
currently impossible to do a blob-free android version as most phones
contain hardware without free drivers and would not be usable at all
with it. What makes this worse is that I further understand this is
not fully changeable. Specifically it's my understanding that the
current GSM patents require all phone manufacturers to buy a license
in order to make their radio controller chips and that this license
specifically prohibits the release of driver source code. I hope I
understand this wrong, but if I'm right then we effectively have a
hardware patent that means no phone OS ("smart" or otherwise) can be
entirely blob free until these patents expire (which is not for some
time). Can anybody perhaps shed more light on this ?
You are right. Proprietary firmware are our biggest problem at the
The situation is similar to the one that Coreboot is facing.
Companies ship new phones and discontinue the not-so-old ones too fast
so that by the time we are able to support a model it is already
I don't see this trend changing with newer google developer phones but
instead getting worse.
Using the first google android developer phone, the ADP1 or even the
htc dream, you could make/receive calls using only free software. Using
a more recent developer phone like the nexus one you need a non free
firmware just to make calls!
This is why I think we should talk to e.g. Lemote to convince them to
build and ship a libre phone.
Only this way we can be sure it will be supported longer.
There is also the GTA04 project from Golden Delicious - a project to
create modern replacement board for the FreeRunner case + display, using
ARMv7 CPU and 3G modem:
The third is apps. Currently the android marketplace is best
as having a significant minority of free software in it. That's a
great deal better than the near-zero availability on competing
platforms like the iPhone but it's still by no means a win. This does
mean however a free software marketplace app, which also only
free software listings would have an available list of initial
products to offer - such a marketplace app would also I believe
greatly increase the potential user-base for free software app
developers and allow them more direct contact with their free
loving users. I have not been able to find any indications that such
project is being planned anywhere though - should it be considered as
a possible item for the high priority list perhaps ? Mind you, I've
been interested in learning app development on android, this is
perhaps a complex point but it could well be a worthwhile project to
work on. Any thoughts on the idea ?
Yes, F-Droid is free software and up and running.
Everyone can download it and install it on every android phone.
By default it is connected only to the fdroid app repository that
contains only android application released under a free license.
The final and perhaps biggest problem right now is that even though
there are fully (or a near as patent law allows depending on how
correct my understanding in point two is) free android mods available
- these cannot run on all phones. Most phone manufacturers are
actively trying to lock their phones down to only running their own
versions. Most of these phones have got published mechanisms by which
the locks can be bypassed (as is done for example on most HTC phones)
so it's not a major issue yet but Motorola has a series of phones now
that are effectively impossible to root as a physical chip on the
device prevents it from booting if the OS is not authorized by
Motorola. Effectively they've tivoized the phone. Sadly since
android's linux kernel has not adopted GPLv3 there is nothing at the
kernel level that stops them doing so. It would perhaps be
to see if any of the code android contains is GLPv3 licensed, if so -
this could allow for an effectively legal way to shut down the
practice (or at least force them to replace said code, which may be
enough motivation to rather just comply). That said - I do believe
that we need to consider some published and official list rating
companies by their friendliness to user freedom - notably the freedom
to replace the phone operating system with a different one. Motorola
would score a zero. Those phones with only software level
(e.g. the ones that can be jailbroken) a slightly higher score
(effectively to say: you can hack this, but don't trust the supplier
not to change that later as they did try to stop you - they just
failed) - and indicate which (if any) phones actively encourages and
hacking and does not contain restrictions on it. I believe the Nexus
One was fully unrestricted - but sadly it's not on the market
I'm not aware of any others but I think there may be some out there ?
Yes with Replicant we are trying to make a list of supported phones
with detailed informations about root permissions, etc. here:
It's worth noting that there is currently hacks available to get even
non Android versions of GNU/Linux to run on some phones (notably
Ubuntu) using the same hack that allowed Android to be installed on a
number of Windows phones and there are rumors (though I've found some
going back at least as far as 2007) that Canonical is working on an
official one. Ubuntu of course is far from fully free - but as we've
already gotten a few free distro's based off it - it would suggest
that at least in theory getting Gnewsense for example to do the same
would not be impossible. This however is at best a tiny emerging
market - and currently seems to be less likely to gain the kind of
industry infiltration that Android has - if only because Android has
successfully gotten most phone manufacturers on-board and this in
has led to network-operator (a crucial price management aspect in the
I discussed a lot about a comparison between a GNU/Linux mobile os
approach and an Android/Linux mobile os approach.
At the moment the most used GNU/Linux mobile distribution is SHR but
it's still in testing, still buggy and not ready for prime time despite
the great efforts and the great people working on it:
On the contrary going with the Android/Linux approach (with Replicant)
would allow us, at least on some models, to have a stable libre
operating system able to do telephony, messaging and even
maps/navigation without problems.
I wouldn't think of this mail as a proper statement of facts, rather
as a question-set and discussion starter (I did look to try and find
any other references on the topic but came up empty handed - there
doesn't seem to be any FSF position papers or similar available, of
course I may just have failed to find them - any such sources would
useful). What is the community's current feelings about this growing
side of computing - and how are we to respond to it to protect and
promote user freedoms here ?
Founder, LibrePlanet Italia