Thoughts on making Android more free-as-in-freedom

Posted on Sun 27 June 2010 in Software Freedom

This conversation on has prompted me to publish the rough notes I had prepared for a proposed discussion on making the Android operating system experience more free-as-in-freedom at the Google I/O 2010 Conference Bootcamp "unconference". Unfortunately, my proposal was not one of the top vote-getters (it missed the cut by two votes), so we didn't get to have the discussion there, even though I'm sure we would have had an interesting discussion. But perhaps there's something worthwhile in the roughly formed thoughts that follow...

Making Android more "Free as in Freedom"

What do I mean?

  • Not "zero cost", but:

    • Free to run for any purpose
    • Free to study the source (a critical means of learning how to build better applications)
    • Free to redistribute verbatim copies
    • Free to modify the source and redistribute the modified version
  • Android the operating system may be FaiF, but Android the distribution is not

We have opportunities to win interesting development investments on Android over proprietary platforms; see the Wockets - open source effort to create very low cost motion measurement devices for hobbyists, researchers, and developers interesting in creating software and devices that measure or respond to movement that is developing with Windows Mobile first, and Android second. It's a shame to see an "open" research project being built on a closed base, but there might be some clues in these researchers' rationale that suggest ways that the freedom of Android could be improved.

  • Drivers (camera, GPS, etc) bundled as binary blobs are a problem for auditing, bug fixing, innovating

  • Current phones get applications delivered out of the box:

    • that sometimes suck (GTalk - no way of changing the Google account it uses)
    • that you won't use and don't want (Facebook!)
    • that you might not trust (this is your phone, +++)
    • that you can't legally redistribute (Market?)
    • that you can't remove (my precious space!) without installing a new firmware image
  • Can be hard to determine what apps are even free software; we might need to combine these multiple, partially overlapping, sometimes contradictory sources:

    and the Android Market and SlideMe Market don't enable filtering by license

  • Opportunities abound for new Free-as-in-Freedom applications to gain a significant foothold:

    • No Skype = space for LinPhone / SipDroid to move in (given a quality contact mechanism)
    • No good multi-protocol IM client (libpurple via NDK?)
    • Boost the Replicant project
  • It's in our best interests as Android users and developers to have a free platform - we developers can build on each others work to create a better user experience, rather than starting from scratch every time in our own jealously protected niches.