Microsoft cannot be trusted

My friend Gianugo Rabellino has a tough job trying to help Microsoft clean up its image of anti-open source company. The best comment I read about its latest attack on Android and Linux (the ebook reader is just an excuse, I agree with Steve J. Vaughan-Nichols) using the equivalent of nuclear weapons (software patents) is on TechCrunch:

Microsoft still has many talented people doing great things. Kinect and even Windows Phone the product, not the strategy jump to mind. But the suits and lawyers are burying all of that under 700 metric tons of bullshit

Read  Vivek Wadhwa’s Why We Need To Abolish Software Patents if you’re still not convinced that this is madness.

Apple and software freedom clashing again

Another app has to be removed from the Apple iTunes mobile App Store. This time, after GNU Go, it’s the iOS port of the popular free VLC Player because the terms of the GNU General Public License are incompatible with those of Apple’s store.

Difficult situation and I still think that the best way out is for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free software applications. What would be better?

via How to avoid public GPL floggings on Apple’s App Store | ZDNet.

The carriers are ruining Android

Techcrunch author MG Siegler picked the wrong fight accusing Android of ‘not being open’. His rant rant is all about how the fact that Android is open source allows the carriers like Verizon and T-mobile to fill it up with crapware and basically crippling the user experience. The nuts of his argument though are in this paragraph:

The thought of a truly open mobile operating system is very appealing. The problem is that in practice, that’s just simply not the reality of the situation. Maybe if Google had their way, the system would be truly open. But they don’t. Sadly, they have to deal with a very big roadblock: the carriers.

Carriers have been crippling phones everywhere and independently from the OS. I think of my Nokia E71, for example. It came branded (not locked) by TIM (Italian operator), installed with a custom firmware containing software that wouldn’t even start. So bad was the situation that I had to change its serial number and lead Nokia to believe that it was an unbranded phone so that I could install the normal firmware and get regular updates.

I learned my lesson then: never ever buy branded/locked phones. But aren’t they more expensive that way? Yes! Unlocked phones cost a ton of money, and you know what? They should! When you go buy a laptop do you expect to pay less than $300? So why do you expect a Droid  phone to cost only $199? Don’t you expect that such low means strings attached? And the strings are crippleware, like the idiotic Navigator-thing that AT&T tried to make me pay for on the Palm Pre.

Come on, American friends, you should know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Android is (almost) free software but that doesn’t have anything to do with the stupid manoeuvres of the carriers. These are lame attempts to squeeze some pennies out of you while they wait for their friends in Washington to destroy net neutrality (with Google’s help).

Screw them, buy unlocked phones and refuse data+voice plans that tie to them for two years. Freedom comes at a very small price, all things considered.

Buy unlocked Android phones

When you buy an Android phone you’re not necessarily buying a phone with an free/open source operating system. Most of Android operating system is licensed in a way that allows manufacturers to lock down the device and make it physically impossible to install new and better software. Bradley Kuhn wrote an interesting article after Motorola finally admitted that they don’t want users to exercise their freedom:

the company just doesn’t believe users deserve the right to install improved versions of their software. At least they admit their contempt for their customers.

The lesson here is not to buy phones from Motorola and buy Google ADP1 or Nexus One which allow improvements to be installed.

Beyond removing GNU software from mobile stores

Last week the Free Software Foundation asked Apple to either remove the game GNU Go from the iTunes App Store or change the terms of service on it. Apple chose to simply remove GNU Go from the store and the move was not a surprise, as FSF Compliance Engineer said in the blog post.  I am puzzled by this move.

I don’t think that FSF goal it to prevent iPhone users to run GNU software on their device, as David ‘Lefty’ Schlesinger paints it and seems to discuss,but nevertheless this is the immediate effect.  Mobile app stores and locked down devices are hostile to free/libre software and GPLv3 can have a difficult life in the mobile environment because of its ‘full installation instructions’ provision. Also, there are still too few free/libre mobile applications.

Having this in mind, a plausible explanation of FSF’s move was to educate free software developers that mobile app stores are not designed to respect users freedom. Fine, but the following question is: how to we proceed from here? What’s the next step of this education and what’s FSF’s plan to bring freedom to the users of mobile phones? I suggest for FSF to sponsor a mobile app repository for free/libre apps: it would have to run on non-free operating systems, but that’s what GNU had to do when there was no Linux. Also, it would be good and probably easy to extend the Free Software Directory to take mobile world into account. What else should FSF do to promote freedom in the mobile world?

Why free software applications are a priority on mobile platforms (not device drivers)

Bradley wrote about mobile software freedom, a field that I’m obviously deep into because of my work at Funambol. His quite long article Musings on Software Freedom for Mobile Devices contains an analysis of the situation, which mobile platforms are more freedom-promising and why (in short: Maemo/Moblin merged as Meego and Android/Linux). I only disagree with Bradley on the priorities he sets. He says:

The challenging and more urgent work is to replace lower-level proprietary components on these systems with FLOSS alternatives,

I don’t think that device drivers are really the first problem the free software movement needs to tackle. I believe that the most important issue is to have good applications, with superb usability and that are innovative in order to attract users, fast. Some of the tactics used in the GNU project will need to be adapted to the speed of mobile, while others are not applicable.

Stallman’s project started in a time when PCs were slowly becoming relevant in society. It took almost 10 years before they were cheap enough to be in the bedrooms of young, smart programmers for them to easily contribute to the project. GNU also started developing applications first, and it took almost 10 years to start working on kernel and device drivers. The early adopters of GNU were highly skilled users, in a world with few computers with a clearly winning platform (the standard/commoditized platform IBM/Intel x86). Stallman and the whole free software movement had a lot of time to develop a nice free-as-in-freedom operating system and applications on standardized hardware. They also had the Unix design to follow: how the system had to look was pretty clear, it only had to be ‘better’.

Compare those first ten years and the quantity of computers in the ’80s/’90s to today’s speed and the quantity of mobile devices in everybody’s pocket (not just in developed countries), without a clear plan to follow(like Unix was for GNU): the game is radically more challenging. Take Google’s G1 as an example: it’s only one year old but its operating system version is obsolete (and customers are complaining). With users changing phone every 18 months in the US, the lifecycle of a free driver is too short to justify the effort.

On the other hand there are many applications that need to be liberated, like social applications that respect freedom in the cloud, mobile email client that don’t suck, mobile music players with stores that are not defective-by-design. And many more need still need to be imagined.  Developer’s focus should be on what appears in freedom-giving mobile applications markets: we made the application market concept popular (apt-get repository anyone?), now we need to move to mobile and to fill them with good and free applications first. Device drivers can come at later stage, eventually after hardware manufacturers will have battled each other to the death and one winner will emerge (like it happened with x86).

Mobile phone markets are designed to split our community

Apple’s iPhone biggest innovation is its mobile app store: for the first time it allowed installing software on the mobile device with the convenience of any modern GNU/Linux distribution. Like in Debian, Fedora, Ubuntu, installing software is just a matter of browsing a repository and click on a button. It’s such a good idea that now every mobile phone manufacturer has created its own mobile app store version. Nokia has Ovi Store, RIM/BlackBerry has App World, Android has its Market. I’m sure that more will come, also from the network operators.

Differently from GNU/Linux software repositories, though, these markets only allow non-free software. The manufacturers together with the network operators act as strict gatekeepers, allowing to reach the users only binaries signed with developers keys. Even if there are many free/libre software projects distributed on the mobile stores (Funambol, WordPress, and many other), the users cannot practically enjoy the freedom to modify the software autonomously because of tivoization.  So we have in our hands powerful computers, always connected to the network but its users are deprived of one significant freedom. The worst effect of these mobile stores is that they split our community, forcing free developers to choose between distributing their software while compromising their morality or not distribute at all.

Given the sad news about OpenMoko ceasing development of the new phone, it’s necessary to gather up and think of alternatives. Jailbreak and Cydia on iPhone is a start, and other phones will need similar liberation. But these are just short-term palliatives. In the long run, I hope we’ll have more OpenMoko-like devices, with full freedom attached.

Make Funambol work on QTopia, get paid and get a free phone

Why wait until summer to code and earn $3,000? Funambol has just announced the availability of a $3,000 bounty to develop a plugin to allow Funambol to run on Qtopia devices. Trolltech, the makers of Qtopia, was just acquired this week by Nokia and as a result, Qtopia will become more commonly used.

Trolltech and Funambol would like to make sure that Funambol software works on Qtopia, so we are happy to provide you with a free Trolltech Green Phone or OpenMoko phone, a free Trolltech SDK and, of ourse, Funambol software. This would involve developing a plug-in to sync PIM data (contacts and calendar to start with) and maybe push email later.

If interested, follow the procedure on the code sniper page and submit a proposal.

Developers looking for information on Funambol’s code should look at Funambol’s wiki and at code from other community contributions (like the Android plugin, for example or the simpler Jajah plugin).