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.

My high priority free software list

Help FSF build the fund
Help FSF build the fund

The FSF has rebooted the list of High Priority Free Software Projects with a $10,000 grant donated from The list contains software that is considered useful by the Foundation to keep computer users away from non-free software.

In the past the FSF has maintained such list directly but this time they ask for input by the community. I tend to agree with the priorities set by FSF, only reshuffling some of them and adding a few of my own. Here is my own personal wishlist:

  1. Gnash, the Free Software alternative to Adobe Flash, not only the player but also the authoring tool. Tools for creativity need lots of work, especially vector animation software and CAD/CAM drawing tools.
  2. CAD/CAM tools are way behind proprietary counterparts. It’s not just a matter of incompatibilities with DWG format. We should lobby Google to release SketchUp as free software, as a start.
  3. Video editing can be improved, but the building blocks are already there, so it shouldn’t be very too difficult to progress.
  4. VoIP and videoconferencing tools are still lacking behind proprietary counterparts, despite the fact that all the building blocks (open protocols, free sw servers and client libraries) are available.
  5. Better graphic templates for and other office/DTP applications. The tools are already good enough for home/small business use and I’m sure that good looking default templates would help drive adoption allowing one-click to create a good looking presentation or poster for local garage sale.

Last but not least, I think citizens of a Free Society need to start thinking of computers beyond the desktop boxes.’  We should invest efforts to develop more Free Sofware mobile applications and devices (like OpenMoko). And in parallel, make it easy to effectively sync between various applications and devices. BTW, did you notice that there is a bounty worth $2,000 to develop a Free Software application to sync Remember The Milk data with Funambol? Let me know if you want to grab that.