Extend the border of free cyberspace to mobile

After one year spent using my (pretty old) cell phone for more than just sms and audio calls, I understand better some of the new challenges that the free software movement have to face.’  I already wrote about the implications of GPLv3 on mobile handsets, but that post only scratches the surface of the issues.

The free software movement is a social movement whose ultimate goal is to liberate every person in cyberspace, that is every computer user. But the meaning of computer and of cyberspace has expanded logarithmically in the past few years and I fear that the rethoric of the movement has not evolved at the same pace. I am for sure one of those that only recently realized how much the handheld devices extend the cyberspace beyond the usual desktop frames.

The computational capability of these devices is impressive, but those pale compared to the social impact on human behaviour. Have a look at the scenarios described in this video, for example, and think of how much your life changed since you had a cell phone.’  Did you ever try to organize a meeting with many people in a remote place without cell phones or network coverage?’  You’d need lots of preparation beforehand, gather addresses, start ahead of time, get everything printed; still somebody would get lost. Or think how much the micropayments via sms, so popular in Africa, are changing life and social habits.

All the interest and hacks on the new powerful and only slightly-less-closed platforms such as iPhone and G1 demonstrate that there are enough free software developer ready to play with truly open platforms. There is a force waiting to be unleashed to liberate the mobile aspect of cyberspace.’  I’m not sure if and what is holding this force. Maybe it’s the fact that cell phones are not really free software developers friendly (only the Neo Free Runner is, at the moment). Or maybe it’s the lack of a clear call from a moral authority, like the one that Stallman launched in 1984 for the GNU system. Maybe all this and something else.

All I know is that our movement needs to evolve its rethoric, extend its reach beyond the desktop computer and beyond the ‘cloud’, and include the mobile computation into the big picture of freedom for computer users. What can we do to obtain more freedom on mobile platforms?

Affero GPL is freedom to the web

Savio questions the usefulness of AGPL and his argument seems very slippery to me. He questions whether the Affero GPL is an obstacle to the development of more free/libre open source software.’  He uses Facebook as an example company that is contributing back modifications to memcached, software that FB uses after having it heavily modified even if it is licensed under the very permissive BSD license. Do we need copyleft licenses, when self interest of the companies makes them contribute back just the same?

I believe the question is tricky because it confuses the scope of copyleft with that of companies. Many people make the same mistake: copyleft is a tool designed to spread freedom in software, at any cost with all tools at our disposal. The FSF, which wrote the GNU and Affero licenses, has the goal to make all software free as in freedom. Companies are ‘free’ to join the revolution, or to look somewhere else for their needs.’  The GNU project existed and survived long before it was mainstream (it started 25 years ago); the whole free software movement has now become too big to kill. The movement counts on good will and self interests of people and also of companies for the contributions, that’s for sure. But the same movement is well aware that sometimes good will doesn’t last for long. Stallman saw it happen during the 80s. We are seeing it happening again, at each downturn of the economy. Who was around when SourceForge turned its software proprietary? I was around and I remember the delusion.

There is no question in my mind that freedom must be fought for and defended with all means available.’  We have copyright laws and we use it.’  The GNU system and copyleft is mainstream on personal computers and servers. Now, with the Affero GPL it’s time to take freedom to the web.

PS don’t forget to donate to FSF. Do it now!

Facebook shows self-interest may trump licensing |Open Sources | Rodrigues & Urlocker | InfoWorld.

links for 2008-12-16

Consumers are ‘mobile’, mobile marketing and services follow

Yesterday I went to listen to the conference where MIP, Politecnico Business School, published the results of the research about Mobile Marketing and Services. The research was based on 200 case studies, involving all the major actors of the supply chain (advertising investors, media buyers, creative agencies, telecom operators’  and service providers) and also a survey focused on marketing directors of medium and big enterprises.

The good things are that mobile is being more pervasive and it’s starting to extend beyond the cell phone to netbooks and gaming consoles. And that over 70% of the Italian mobile users are of age between 25 and 55, so in their full spending power.’  The youngest group, 18 to 25, is just 11%; this seems to contradict the myth that mobile ads are only good to target youngers.’  I’ve also learned that location-based advertising is being held back because of privacy issues. In Italy the fact that Mario Rossi is *now* in Via Carlo Farini, Milano cannot be passed from the mobile operator to the advertiser.’  It seems that this is a grey legal area that lawyers are trying to sort out.

Strangely, Google was not present.’  I didn’t hear the word Google or Adwords connected to the mobile world. But according to the slides presented by Niumidia, 30% of the users that access TIM/Virgilio WAP portals do it to use the search.’  It seemed as if mobile web is a different thing from the desktop web. Are we so far away from having full web experience on mobile handsets that it’s too early to say goodbye to those depressing WAP portals?

I was surprised that for Dada (Vodafone) and Niumidia (TIM), mobile advertising is SMS, MMS/VMS and banners on WAP portals. They still have made no plans for mobile email. I found it strange because ‘smart phones’ are being sold in huge numbers (40M last quarter,’  27% increase since Q2) and when users get a new powerful phone they want to get their email on it.’ Am I missing something?

Free Software Foundation Files Suit Against Cisco For GPL Violations

Wow! As far as I know, this is the first time FSF is forced to go to court to enforce its copyright.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) today announced that it has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Cisco. The FSF’s complaint alleges that in the course of distributing various products under the Linksys brand Cisco has violated the licenses of many programs on which the FSF holds copyright, including GCC, binutils, and the GNU C Library. In doing so, Cisco has denied its users their right to share and modify the software.

If you haven’t done this already, now it’s time to donate.

Full press release and another comment from Brett’s blog.

links for 2008-12-10

If it’s broken, then fix it

Last month I had the luck to listen to Muhammad Yunnus speak about leadership and change. His speech was full of inspiration and hope, his work showed that radical changes can start by questioning what we take for granted.’  Mr. Yunnus reported a dialogue with the director of a bank where he went to ask for them to start lending money to the poors. Quoting from “Banker to the poor”:

Yunnus: “But if you are certain that the money will be repaid, why do you need collateral?”
Bank director: “That is our bank rule.”
Y: “So only those who have collateral can borrow?”
B: “Yes”
Y: “It’s a silly rule. It means that only the rich can borrow.”
B: “I don’t make the rules, the bank does”
Y: “Well, I think the rules should be changed”.

And then he went on and created Grameen Bank, radically changing those rules.

I see in his logic the same kind of logic that lead Richard Stallman to start developing the GNU system.’  He knew the rules of copyright were being used to deprive computer programmers of freedom to learn and evolve software, so he changed them with copyleft.

The lesson I got from this is that if the rules seem broken then it’s time to fix them, even if everybody else takes them for granted.

links for 2008-12-06

Is GPLv3 doomed on mobile handsets?

Short answer: no, I don’t think so. But it will take lots of efforts for GPLv3 software to diffuse on handsets, too.

Longer answer. For us at Funambol it’s quite clear that not all of the Funambol clients can be distributed as binaries under the same AGPLv3 license that regulates the source. That’s because for platforms like BlackBerry and iPhone the binaries must be digitally signed with a developer key in order to be executed and run.’  GNU GPLv3 and its sister license Affero GPLv3 require that the recipient of binaries receive from the author the complete and corresponding source code:

Complete Corresponding Source Code also includes any encryption or authorization codes necessary to install and/or execute the source code of the work, perhaps modified by you, in the recommended or principal context of use, such that its functioning in all circumstances is identical to that of the work, except as altered by your modifications.

That is, Funambol cannot distribute the BlackBerry or iPhone binaries under the AGPLv3 without distributing also its own private dev keys, something that clearly cannot be done.

Now many people believe that since handset manufacturers and cell phone network operators are used to keep strong control over their hardware platforms and over their networks, then GPLv3 software will never be able to diffuse in the mobile environment.’  This criticism is not new and has also been discussed during the GPLv3 drafting process.’  But GPLv3 is not necessarily incompatible with embedded devices and with business models attached to them.

Most of the criticisms are either plain FUD or old habits (“that’s how it always was and will always be”). For example, one argument is that regulators like FCC mandate that devices that emit radio signals should not be modifiable; therefore hardware vendors refuse to release software for wireless systems under a free software license.’  Another is that network operators don’t like to give possibility to execute any software on their networks for fears of malware and lawsuits from their users (example: if a program gets out of control and starts sending thousands of sms from a cell phone, who’s going to pay?)

Criticisms like these may be hard to confute, but they must be fought back because we can’t let people believe that things can and should not change.’  We need a more focused effort.’  OpenMoko demonstrates that most of the concerns come from laziness, old habits. FSF can have a stronger role even if RMS doesn’t use a cell phone.

When you renew your support to FSF this year add a request for the High Priority Project: a fully free OS for cell phones. We have the OpenMoko hardware to start hacking, we have lots of software to get started. Lets make it better and put the Freedom word in mobile, too.