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?

6 thoughts on “Extend the border of free cyberspace to mobile

  1. I agree, now the game is refocusing on mobile and cloud, which are two sides of the same coin, not at all two separate things. The gap between mobile and PC is being closed, if it still exists, by smartphones and netbooks, and I believe that PCs will play a very limited role in the upcoming years, or even they will fade away (like the desktop form factor for PCs).

    Unfortunately, I fear that the tools with which the Free Software has achieved so much success are slightly ineffective in this new arena. With the sheer force of a great dose of idealism, a couple of licenses and a bunch of lines of code, what has been achieved in twenty years’ time is impressive. But I don’t think History will repeat itself.

    What we need more badly than we needed it twenty years ago is public support and political backing. Good licensing, good idealism and good programming are not enough anymore. We need widespread public outreach. The game has been sort of reinvented, we must stay ahead of the game, and we’ll win!

    Happy 2009!

    Carlo

  2. I agree that the role of pc will change in the future because we are invaded by handheld devices, netbooks, and so on. But I feel that what we need remains the same.

    We need free software developers to create software that should be almost identical to the proprietary ones in term of GUI and usability.

    But most of all we need people to talk about digital freedom, to make people judge software by ethical terms and not only by features/speed.

  3. I really wish people of criticizing the G1 for not being composed solely of Free Software. In this article, it is compared to the iPhone. Maybe I know nothing about what I am talking about, but there seems to be a huge difference between the iPhone/Blackberry/whatever and the Android-based G1. The difference is that those who know they want freedom can obtain it fairly easily on the G1. This dream is impossible with the major closed platforms, unless you throw GNU/Linux on them.

    I personally would not have any problem buying a G1 armed with the knowledge of how to remove the proprietary software from the open framework underneath.

  4. I really wish people would stop criticizing the G1 for not being composed solely of Free Software. In this article, it is compared to the iPhone. Maybe I know nothing about what I am talking about, but there seems to be a huge difference between the iPhone/Blackberry/whatever and the Android-based G1. The difference is that those who know they want freedom can obtain it fairly easily on the G1. This dream is impossible with the major closed platforms, unless you throw GNU/Linux on them.

    I personally would not have any problem buying a G1 armed with the knowledge of how to remove the proprietary software from the open framework underneath.

  5. Max: the G1 is still too far away to be an acceptable device for the free software movement. Arguing that G1 is better than iPhone, while it’s still largely freedom-depriving is not going to get us more free devices.

    You say you would buy a G1 provided it gave you the knowledge to remove its proprietary software: well, the issue is that you can’t do that! The device is tivo-ized, and that makes it unsuitable for a free world.

  6. Graziano: I don’t think that imitating GUI and functions of proprietary software is necessarily a good thing, mainly because lots of stuff out there is pretty bad/old. Think of OLPC and Sugar, how beautiful it is. Sugar doesn’t imitate, it innovates.

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