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.

Will Nokia become FLOSS best friend?

Google’s power is making more people concerned that their motto ‘do no evil’ is not reassuring enough. Fabrizio Capobianco’s blog post summarizes the concerns of the Winston Smith Project. Google is scary because it controls the access point to the internet for 90% of users and because it’s expanding its reach to the mobile network. But G is not the only one trying to blend the separation between your desktop computer and your cell phone: it just happen to be a very visible one. Look at the chart on Funambol’s white paper on mobile sync opportunities and strategies: everybody is doing the same.

Mobile sync opportunities

Microsoft is not less scary, because with its monopoly on the desktop computers it controls the users’ applications and data. Extending their power from the desktop to the mobile environment is within their reach: after all, they succeeded expanding from the desktop to the server. They can do it again, if they play it right. Apple controls and has access to data for millions of desktop+mobile users: maybe MobileMe is not yet widely used but nonetheless the closed and proprietary nature of all Apple things and the quantity of iTunes+iPod users makes them scary enough.

Nokia is peculiar: it has a huge market share on mobile phones, but its Ovi services don’t have a strong companion on the desktop. With all the other operating systems controlled by competitors, Nokia could start collaborating more with the free software community to better integrate Ovi with Gnome or KDE for example. I think it would be a wise move since there are many GNU/Linux desktops out there, and more will come during 2009.’  Will Nokia become the next Free Software community Best Friend Forever, now that Google has become scary?