Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Archive for January, 2019

Filesystem Familiarisation

Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

I previously noted that accessing filesystems would be a component in my work with microkernel-based systems, and towards the end of last year I began an exercise in developing a simple “toy” filesystem that could hold file-like entities. Combining this with some L4Re-based components that implement seemingly reasonable mechanisms for providing access to files, I was able to write simple test programs that open and access these files.

The starting point for all this was the observation that a normal system file – that is, something stored in the filesystem in my GNU/Linux environment – can be treated like an archive containing multiple files and therefore be regarded as providing a filesystem itself. Such a file can then be embedded in a payload providing a L4Re system by specifying it as a “module” in conf/modules.list for a particular payload entry:

module image_root.fs

Since L4Re provides a rudimentary “rom” filesystem that exposes the modules embedded in the payload, I could open this “toy” filesystem module as a file within L4Re using the normal file access functions.

fp = fopen("rom/image_root.fs", "r");

And with that, I could then use my own functions to access the files stored within. Some additional effort went into exposing file access via interprocess communication, which forms the basis of those mechanisms mentioned above, those mechanisms being needed if such filesystems are to be generally usable in the broader environment rather than by just a single program.

Preparing Filesystems

The first step in any such work is surely to devise how a filesystem is to be represented. Then, code must be written to access the filesystem, firstly to write files and directories to it, and then to be able to perform the necessary task of reading that file and directory information back out. At some point, an actual filesystem image needs to be prepared, and here it helps a lot if a convenient tool can be developed to speed up testing and further development.

I won’t dwell on the “toy” representation I used, mostly because it was merely chosen to let me explore the mechanisms and interfaces to be provided as L4Re components. The intention was always to switch to a “real world” filesystem and to use that instead. But in order to avoid being overwhelmed with learning about existing filesystems alongside learning about L4Re and developing file access mechanisms, I chose some very simple representations that I thought might resemble “real world” filesystems sufficiently enough to make the exercise realistic.

With the basic proof of concept somewhat validated, my attentions have now turned to “real world” filesystems, and here some interesting observations can be made about tools and libraries. If you were to ask someone about how they might prepare a filesystem, particularly a GNU/Linux user, it would be unsurprising to me if they suggested preparing a file…

dd if=/dev/zero of=image_root.fs bs=1024 count=1 seek=$SIZE_IN_KB

…then a filesystem in the file…

/sbin/mkfs.ext2 image_root.fs

…and then mounting it as follows:

sudo mount image_root.fs $MOUNTPOINT

Here, an ext2 filesystem is prepared in a normal system file, and then the operating system is asked to mount the filesystem and to expose it via a mountpoint, this being a directory in the general hierarchy of files and filesystems. But this last step requires special privileges and for the kernel to get involved, and yet all we are doing is accessing a file with the data inside it stored in a particular way. So why is there not a more straightforward, unprivileged way of writing data to that file in the required format?

Indeed, other projects of mine have needed to initialise filesystems, and such mounting operations have been a necessary aspect of those, given the apparent shortage of other methods. It really seemed that filesystems and kernel mechanisms were bound to each other, requiring us to always get the kernel involved. But it turns out that there are other solutions.

A History Lesson

I am reminded of the mtools suite of programs for accessing floppy disks. Once upon a time, when I was in my first year of university studies, practically all of our class’s programming was performed on a collection of DECstations. Although networked, each of these also provided a floppy drive capable of supporting 2.88MB disks: an uncommon sight, for me at least, with the availability of media and compatibility concerns dictating the use of 720KB and 1.44MB disks instead.

Presumably, within the Ultrix environment we were using, normal users were granted access to the floppy drive when logged in. With a disk inserted, mtools could then be used to access the disk as one big file, interpreting the contents and presenting the user with a view onto files and directories. Of course, mtools exposes a DOS-like interface to the disk, with DOS-like commands providing DOS-like output, and it does not attempt to integrate the contents of a disk within the general Unix filesystem hierarchy.

Indeed, the mechanisms of integrating such foreign data into the general filesystem hierarchy are denied to mere programs, this being a motivation for pursuing alternative operating system architectures like GNU Hurd which support such integration. But the point here is that filesystems – in this example, DOS-based filesystems on floppy disks – can readily be interpreted with the appropriate tools and without “operator” privileges.

Decoding Filesystem Data

Since filesystems are really just data structures encoded in storage, there should really be no magic involved in decoding and accessing them. After all, the code in the Linux kernel and in other operating system kernels has to do just that, and these things are just programs that happen to run under certain special conditions. So it would make sense if some of the knowledge encoded in these kernels had been extracted and made available as library code for other purposes. After all, it might come in useful elsewhere.

Fortunately, it is likely that such library code is already installed on your system, at least if you are using the ext2 family of filesystems. A search for some common utilities can be informative in this respect. Here is a query being issued for the appropriate filesystem checking utility on a Debian system:

$ dpkg -S e2fsck
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man5/e2fsck.conf.5.gz
e2fsprogs: /sbin/e2fsck
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man8/e2fsck.8.gz

And for the filesystem initialisation utility mentioned above:

$ dpkg -S mkfs.ext2
e2fsprogs: /sbin/mkfs.ext2
e2fsprogs: /usr/share/man/man8/mkfs.ext2.8.gz

The e2fsprogs package itself depends on a package called libext2fs2 – or e2fslibs on earlier distribution versions – and ultimately one discovers that these tools and their libraries are provided by a software distribution, e2fsprogs, whose aim is to provide programs and libraries for general access to the ext2/3/4 filesystem format. So it turns out to be possible and indeed feasible to write programs accessing filesystems without needing to make use of code residing in some kernel or other.

Tooling Up

Had I bothered to investigate further, I might have discovered another useful package. Running one or both of the following commands on a Debian system lets us see which other packages make use of the library functionality of e2fsprogs:

apt-cache rdepends e2fslibs
apt-cache rdepends libext2fs2

Amongst those listed is e2tools which offers a suite of commands resembling those provided by mtools, albeit with a Unix flavour instead of a DOS flavour. Investigating this, I discovered that these tools inherit somewhat from the utilities provided by e2fsprogs, particularly the debugfs utility.

However, investigating e2fsprogs by myself gave me a chance to become familiar with the details of libext2fs and how the different utilities managed to use it. Since it is not always obvious to me how the library should be used, and I find myself missing some good documentation for it, the more program code I can find to demonstrate its use, the better.

For my purposes, accessing individual files and directories is not particularly interesting: I really just want to treat an ext2 filesystem like an archive when preparing my L4Re payload; it is only within L4Re that I actually want to access individual things. Outside L4Re, having an equivalent to the tar command, but with the output being a filesystem image instead of a tar file, would be most useful for me. For example:

e2archive --create image_root.fs $ROOTFS

Currently, this can be made to populate a filesystem for eventual deployment, although the breadth of support for the filesystem features is rather limited. It is possible that I might adopt e2tools as the basis of this archiving program, given that it is merely a shell script that calls another program. Then again, it might be useful to gain direct experience with libext2fs for my other activities.

Future Directions

And so, in the GNU/Linux environment, the creation of such archives has been the focus of my experiments. Meanwhile, I need to develop library functions to support filesystem operations within L4Re, which means writing code to support things like file descriptor abstractions and the appropriate functions for accessing and manipulating files and directories. The basics of some of this is already done for the “toy” filesystem, but it will be a matter of figuring out which libext2fs functions and abstractions need to be used to achieve the same thing for ext2 and its derivatives.

Hopefully, once I can demonstrate file access via the same interprocess communications mechanisms, I can then make a start in replacing the existing conventional file access functions with versions that use my mechanisms instead of those provided in L4Re. This will most likely involve work on the C library support in L4Re, which is a daunting prospect, but some familiarity with that is probably beneficial if a more ambitious project to replace the C library is to be undertaken.

But if I can just manage to get the dynamic linker to be able to read shared libraries from an ext2 filesystem, then a rather satisfying milestone will have been reached. And this will then motivate work to support storage devices on various hardware platforms of interest, permitting the hosting of filesystems and giving those systems some potential as L4Re-based general-purpose computing devices, too.

Some Ideas for 2019

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2019

Well, after my last article moaning about having wishes and goals while ignoring the preconditions for, and contributing factors in, the realisation of such wishes and goals, I thought I might as well be constructive and post some ideas I could imagine working on this year. It would be a bonus to get paid to work on such things, but I don’t hold out too much hope in that regard.

In a way, this is to make up for not writing an article summarising what I managed to look at in 2018. But then again, it can be a bit wearing to have to read through people’s catalogues of work even if I do try and make my own more approachable and not just list tons of work items, which is what one tends to see on a monthly basis in other channels.

In any case, 2018 saw a fair amount of personal focus on the L4Re ecosystem, as one can tell from looking at my article history. Having dabbled with L4Re and Fiasco.OC a bit in 2017 with the MIPS Creator CI20, I finally confronted certain aspects of the software and got it working on various devices, which had been something of an ambition for at least a couple of years. I also got back into looking at PIC32 hardware and software experiments, tidying up and building on earlier work, and I keep nudging along my Python-like language and toolchain, Lichen.

Anyway, here are a few ideas I have been having for supporting a general strategy of building flexible, sustainable and secure computing environments that respect the end-user. Such respect not being limited to software freedom, but also extending to things like privacy, affordability and longevity that are often disregarded in the narrow focus on only one set of end-user rights.

Building a General-Purpose System with L4Re

Apart from writing unfinished articles about supporting hardware devices on the Ben NanoNote and Letux 400, I also spent some time last year considering the mechanisms supporting filesystems in L4Re. For an outsider like myself, the picture isn’t particularly clear, but the mechanisms don’t really seem particularly well documented, and I am not convinced that the filesystem support is what people might expect from a microkernel-based system.

Like L4Re’s device support, the way filesystems are made available to tasks appears to use libraries extensively, whereas I would expect more use of individual programs, with interprocess messages and shared memory being employed to move the data around. To evaluate my expectations, I have been writing programs that operate in such a way, employing a “toy” filesystem to test the viability of such an approach. The plan is to make use of libext2fs to expose ext2/3/4 filesystems to L4Re components, then to try and replace the existing file access mechanisms with ones that access these file-serving components.

It is unfortunate that systems like these no longer seem to get much attention from the wider Free Software community. There was once a project to port GNU Hurd to L4-family microkernels, but with the state of the art having seemingly been regarded as insufficient or inappropriate, the focus drifted off onto other things, and now there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to resume such work. Even the existing Hurd implementation doesn’t get that much interest these days, either. And yet there are plenty of technical, social and practical reasons for not just settling for using the Linux kernel and systems based on it for every last application and device.

Extending Hardware Support within L4Re

It is all very well developing filesystem support, but there also has to be support for the things that provide the storage on which those filesystems reside. This is something I didn’t bother to look at when getting L4Re working on various devices because the priority was to have something to show, meaning that the display had to work, along with testing and demonstrating other well-understood peripherals, with the keyboard or keypad being something that could be supported with relative ease and then used to demonstrate other aspects of the solution.

It seems perverse that one must implement support for SD or microSD card storage all over again when the software being run is already being loaded from such storage, but this is rather like the way that “live CD” versions of GNU/Linux would load an environment directly from a CD, yet an installed version of such an environment might not have the capability to access the CD drive. Still, this is an unavoidable step along the path to make a practical system.

It might also be nice to make the CI20 support a bit better. Although a device notionally supported by L4Re, various missing pieces of hardware support needed to be added, and the HDMI output capability remains unavailable. Here, the mystery hardware left undocumented by the datasheet happens to be used in other chipsets and has been supported in the Linux kernel for many of them for quite some time. Hopefully, the exercise will not be too frustrating.

Another device that might be a good candidate for L4Re is the Efika MX Smartbook. Although having a modest specification by today’s bloated-Web and pointless-eye-candy standards, it has a nice keyboard (with a more sensible layout than the irritating HP Elitebook, as I recently discovered) and is several times more powerful than the Letux 400. My brother, David, has already investigated certain aspects of the hardware, and it might make the basis of a nice portable system. And since support in Linux and other more commonly-used technologies has been left to rot, why not look into developing a more lasting alternative?

Reviving Mail-Based Communication

It is tiresome to see the continuing neglect of the health of e-mail, despite it being used as the bedrock of the Internet’s activities, while proprietary and predatory social media platforms enjoy undeserved attention and promotion in mass media and in society at large. Governmental and corporate negligence mean that the average person is subjected to an array of undesirable, disturbing and generally unwanted communications from chancers and criminals through their e-mail accounts which, if it had ever happened to the same degree with postal mail, would have seen people routinely arrested and convicted for their activities.

It is tempting to think that “they” do not want “us” to have a more reliable form of mail-based communication because that would involve things like encryption and digital signatures. Even when these things are deemed necessary, they always seem to be rolled out as part of a special service that hosts “our” encryption and signing keys for us, through which we must go to access our messages. It is, I suppose, yet another example of the abandonment of common infrastructure: that when something better is needed, effort and attention is siphoned off from the “commons” and ploughed into something separate that might make someone a bit of money.

There are certainly challenges involved in making e-mail better, with any discussion of managing identities, vouching for and recognising correspondents, and the management of keys most likely to lead to dispute about the “best” way of doing things. But in the end, we probably find ourselves pursuing perfect solutions that do everything whilst proprietary competitors just focus on doing a handful of things effectively. So I envisage turning this around and evaluating whether a more limited form of mail-based communication can be done in the way that most people would need.

I did look fairly recently at a selection of different projects seeking to advise and support people on providing their own e-mail infrastructure. That is perhaps worth an article in its own right. And on the subject of mail-based communication, I hope to look a bit more at imip-agent again after neglecting it for so long.

Sustaining a Python Alternative

One motivation for developing my Python-like language and toolchain, Lichen, was to explore ways in which Python might have been developed to better suit my own needs and preferences. Although I still use Python extensively, I remain mindful of the need to write conservative, uncomplicated code without the kind of needless tricks and flourishes that Python’s expanding feature set can tempt the developer with, and thus I almost always consider the possibility of being able to use the Lichen toolchain with my projects one day.

Lichen may still be a proof of concept, but there has been work done on gradually pushing it towards being genuinely usable. I spent some time considering the way floating point numbers might be represented, and this raised some interesting issues around how they might be stored within instances. Like the tuple performance optimisations, I hope to introduce floating point support into the established feature set of Lichen and hopefully offer decent-enough performance, with the latter aspect being yet another path of investigation this year.

Documenting and Publishing

A continuing worry I have is whether I should still be running MoinMoin sites or even sites derived from MoinMoin “export dumps” for published information that is merely static. I have spent some time developing a parsing and formatting tool to generate static content from Moin content, thus avoiding running Moin altogether and also avoiding having to run a script acting as a URL-preserving front-end to exported Moin content (which is unfortunately required because of how the “export dump” seems to work).

Currently, this tool supports HTML and Moin output, the latter to test the parsing activity, with Graphviz content rendered as inline SVG or in other supported formats (although inline SVG is really what you want). Some macros are supported, but I need to add support for others, like the search macros which are useful for generating page listings. Themes are also supported, but I need to make sure that things like tables of contents – already supported with a macro – can be styled appropriately.

Already, I can generate the bulk of my existing project documentation, and the aim here is to be able to focus on improving that documentation, particularly for things like Lichen that really need explanations to be written before I need to start reviewing the code from scratch as if I were a total newcomer to the work. I have also considered using this tool as the basis for a decentralised wiki solution, but that can probably wait for a while given how many other things I have said I want to do!

Anything More?

There are probably other things that are worth looking at, but these are perhaps the ones I feel are most pressing. It could be said that pursuing all these at once would spread me and my efforts very thin, but I tend to cycle through projects periodically and hope that I can catch up with what I was previously doing, hence the mention above of documenting my work.

I wonder how much other people think about the year ahead, whether it is a productive and ultimately rewarding exercise to state aspirations and goals in this kind of way. New Year’s resolutions are a familiar practice, of course, but here I make no promises!

Nevertheless, a belated Happy New Year to anyone still reading! I hope we can all pursue our objectives enthusiastically over the year ahead and make a real and positive difference to computing, its users and to our societies.

An Absence of Strategy?

Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

I keep starting articles but not finishing them. However, after responding to some correspondence recently, where I got into a minor rant about a particular topic, I thought about starting this article and more or less airing the rant for a wider audience. I don’t intend to be negative here, so even if this sounds like me having a moan about how things are, I really do want to see positive and constructive things happen to remedy what I see as deficiencies in the way people go about promoting and supporting Free Software.

The original topic of the correspondence was my brother’s article about submitting “apps” to F-Droid, the Free Software application repository for Android, which somehow got misattributed to me in the FSFE newsletter. As anyone who knows both of us can imagine, it is not particularly unusual that people mix us up, but it does still surprise me how people can be fluid about other people’s names and assume that two people with the same family name are the same person.

Eventually, the correction was made, for which I am grateful, and it must be said that I do also appreciate the effort that goes into writing the newsletter. Having previously had the task of doing some of the Fellowship interviews, I know that such things require more work than people might think, largely go either unnoticed or unremarked, and as a participant in the process it can be easy to wonder afterwards if it was worth the bother. I do actually follow the FSFE Planet and the discussion mailing list, so I’d like to think that I keep up with what other people do, but the newsletter must have some value to those who don’t want to follow a range of channels.

A Rant about Free Software on Mobile

Well, it wasn’t as much of a rant as it was a moan about how there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy about Free Software on mobile devices. The FSFE has had some kind of campaign about Android for quite some time. What it amounts to is promoting Free Software applications and Free Software distributions on phones.

This probably isn’t significantly different from the activities promoted by the FSF, whose Defective By Design campaign features a gift guide promoting phones that run Free Software. The FSF also promotes and funds the Replicant project, more of which below.

For all I know, the situation about getting Free Software applications onto a phone probably isn’t all that dire, assuming that Google and phone vendors don’t try and prevent users from installing software that isn’t delivered via Google Play or other officially-sanctioned channels. Or as the Android documentation puts it:

Of course, this is rather reminiscent of the “bad old days” where some people could copy things on and off their phone using Bluetooth (or for those with particularly long memories, infrared communication) whereas others had those features disabled by their provider. So, while some people get to enjoy the benefits of Free Software, others are denied them: another case of divide-and-rule in action, I suppose.

But it is the situation about Free Software distributions, more specifically having a Free Software operating system with Free Software device drivers and Free Software firmware, that is most worrying. The FSFE campaign points people to the two enduring initiatives for putting a different kind of Android distribution on phones: Replicant and LineageOS (previously CyanogenMod).

While LineageOS seems to try and support as many devices as possible, it relies on non-free software to support device hardware. Meanwhile, Replicant employs only Free Software and is therefore limited in which devices it may support and to what extent those device’s features will function.

Although I can’t really muster much enthusiasm for Android and its derivatives, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to provide a completely Free Software distribution of that software. Certainly, there will always be challenges with the evolution of the upstream code, being steered this way and that by its corporate parent for maximum corporate benefit, but this isn’t really much different to clinging on to the pace of change (and churn) in an openly-developed project like the Linux kernel.

But ultimately, these initiatives will always be reacting to what other people, specifically those working for large companies, have decided to do. It will always be about chasing the latest release of the upstream software and making it acceptable for a Free Software audience. And it will always be about seeing whether the latest devices can be supported or not and then trying to figure out how. And this is where most people start to wonder why things always have to be like this, spurring my rant.

For the Long Term

To be fair to the FSFE’s Android-related campaign, the advice given does give people some concrete activities to consider: it isn’t simply the “go out and write code” battle cry that sometimes drifts through the air after an acrimonious episode where nobody can agree with each other. Helping F-Droid get more applications published, writing more Free Software applications, helping the operating system projects with their efforts: these are all worthwhile things for people to do.

But we only need look at the FSF’s ethical gift guide to see the severe challenges being faced over the longer term. For yet another year, the only offerings are older, refurbished Samsung smartphones, the most recent being the Galaxy S3 and Galaxy Note 2 from 2012. Now, there is nothing wrong with older hardware or refurbished devices. After all, I have written about older and much less powerful hardware than that which I believe still should have a place in modern life.

Nor should people regard the price of such refurbished units as particularly expensive. Of course you can buy a new phone with better specifications for the same or even less, but that new phone won’t be running only Free Software. Yes, there is always the Fairphone whose creators’ grip on Free Software, software longevity and other matters that weren’t confronted in the beginning is supposedly now rather better, although the hardware drivers remain non-free, so it isn’t really comparable, either.

Here, it is illustrative to consider community-originating efforts to develop smartphones, particularly since there is a perception that such efforts eventually end up pitching “expensive” and “underpowered” devices that “aren’t competitive”. There are obviously a collection of such initiatives ongoing at any given point, but ignoring random crowdfunding campaigns and corporate publicity stunts, we might usefully focus on some more familiar projects: the GTA04 successor to the Openmoko FreeRunner and the Neo900 successor to the Nokia N900.

Both of these projects are in a not-easily-explained state. The GTA04 device was made in a number of incrementally refined versions and sold primarily to people who already had a FreeRunner into which they could install the new hardware. However, difficulties with the last hardware revision meant that it was no longer viable as a product, with the cost of overcoming production problems being rather likely to exceed any money otherwise made on the units.

Meanwhile, the Neo900 project is effectively stalled having experienced several setbacks, notably the freezing of funds by PayPal for no really good reason, and difficulties in finding and retaining qualified people to do things like board layout. Although there are aspirations to get to completion, perhaps with some modification of the original goals, the path to completion remains obscure and uncertain. It is certainly hard to sustain my initial enthusiasm for the project, even if I do sympathise deeply with the struggles and difficulties of those trying to deliver something that they want to see succeed perhaps more than anyone else.

The future is not necessarily entirely bleak for these projects, though. Experience from the GTA04 effort may have been beneficial to the development of the Pyra handheld computer, whose own genesis has been troubled at times and yet forthrightly communicated in an honourably transparent fashion by its initiator, and the CPU board for that device may end up as the basis for a new product known as the GTA15. Given the common architectural heritage of the GTA04, N900 and Neo900, it would not be completely inconceivable that if some kind of way forward could be found for the Neo900, GTA15 might be some kind of contributing element to that.

What these projects should illustrate, however, is that the foundations of a Free Software mobile device are difficult to prepare, subject to sudden and potentially catastrophic setbacks or outright failure, and they require persistence and plenty of resources, not least of the financial kind but also the dedication of people with the right competence and experience. Sadly, these projects never get the attention, the recognition, or the generosity they deserve.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

If we care about being able to support all the different elements of our phones with Free Software, instead of crossing out items in the specification list, sacrificing functionality because nobody knows how it works without signing a non-disclosure agreement and then only being allowed to release a binary blob for loading into specific Linux kernel versions, then we need to be there at the start, when the phone gets designed, and play a role in making sure that everything can be supported by Free Software. Spending time and effort on figuring out someone else’s hardware is not time and effort well spent.

Indeed, from the moment a proprietary product gets into the hands of developers, the clock is ticking. Already, given the pace of product development and shipment, the product is heading for obsolescence and its manufacturer will be tooling up to make its successor. Even if downstream developers work quickly and get as much of the hardware supported as they can, there will be only be a certain period before the product becomes difficult to obtain. And then the process of catch-up starts all over again with the next product.

Of course, product variations always used to happen with desktop and laptop computers. One day you’d get a laptop with one chipset and the next day the “same” laptop would contain something else. The only thing that eased the pain involved was broad hardware support for these kinds of devices, and even then there would be chipsets notorious for their lack of support in things like the Linux kernel.

Such pitfalls cultivated demands for products that could run Free Software and be supplied with such software instead of the usual proprietary products bundled as a consequence of Microsoft’s anticompetitive and coercive business practices. It was no longer enough to accept that we might buy a computer with bundled software and “install over it”, that this might emphasise our Free Software credentials. Credible advocates of Free Software have sought to identify vendors offering systems that are either already supplied with Free Software or that come without any preinstalled software at all, in both cases being fully capable of supporting a Free Software distribution.

But we now find ourselves in the absurd situation with mobile devices where remedial measures comparable to “install over it” are almost the only things people can suggest, that there really aren’t any mobile device vendors who can offer a bare, supportable device or one that is, say, already running Replicant and offering access to all of the device’s features. And although refurbished devices are sold that may run Replicant well enough, we lack another essential guarantee that may not have been so important in the past, one that community-originating hardware projects might be able to help with.

In being involved with the design of these devices, we can seek to dictate how long they remain viable. Instead of having a large corporation decide that now is the time for you to buy their next device and that the product you bought and liked is now deliberately unavailable, we can seek to keep making devices as long as they have a role and have people wanting to keep using them.

If something runs a Free Software distribution well enough, and if that device can still be made, it becomes a safe choice and something we can recommend to others. At last, we get some kind of certainty in a world whose stream of continual change is often fad-driven, exploitative and needless.

The Strategic Vacuum

So it seems obvious to me that if people want Free Software on phones, they need to cultivate the efforts to make that Free Software viable, which means cultivating sustainable hardware design and actually promoting and supporting the projects pursuing it. Otherwise, it is like trying to plant an orchard without paying attention to the soil, cursing that the trees will not grow whilst being oblivious to the fact that the ground is concrete.

And this goes beyond this particular domain. Free Software advocacy is all well and good, but there needs to be practical action that goes beyond pitching in and nudging things towards success. It is wonderful that collective effort and collaboration can take small endeavours and grow them into solutions that are useful for many, but it can be too much to expect everything to just coalesce as if by magic, that people and projects will just discover each other, work together, strengthen each other and multiply the benefits.

There needs to be a strategy, for people to identify real-world problems that are not being addressed by Free Software, to identify the projects that might be applied to those problems, and to propose actual solutions. In the absence of Free Software, proprietary and exploitative solutions are able to stake out their territory, entrench themselves and to thrive.

Here, I struggle to see which Free Software organisations have both the breadth of scope and the depth of focus to make a difference. Developer-driven organisations like Debian and KDE have a lot going on, and they deliver non-trivial software systems, and yet sustaining something like a viable mobile platform (encompassing hardware and software) is seemingly beyond their reach. Neither have a coherent answer to other significant challenges of our time, such as the dominance of proprietary (and destructive) communications platforms.

Meanwhile, advocacy-driven organisations like the FSFE merely give advice to people about how they might help Free Software. The FSF arguably combines this with actual development through the GNU project, and there are those lists of urgent activities, but one cannot help but have the impression that the urgency is reactive and not the product of strategic vision (beyond the goal of the proliferation of Free Software, of course). I would like to think that the Software Freedom Conservancy might combine things more effectively, but it perhaps remains more of an umbrella organisation with a similar emphasis on broad Free Software adoption.

I would like to think that the step of getting involved in Free Software is but the first step towards fairer, kinder, more transparent, more productive and more sustainable societies. Traces of such visions can be seen in the communications of various organisations and yet they largely hold back from suggesting what the next steps might be. And yet, I think, we will in future really need to take those steps in order to protect ourselves, our societies, and the things we care about.

In general, we notice the absence of strategy; in specific cases, we notice it keenly. Which organisations are willing and able to fill this strategic void coherently and decisively, to offer concrete solutions as opposed to suggestions, to have something definite to work towards, and to direct effort and resources into actually realising such goals? Surely, in this age of hoping for the best, those organisations will be the ones that deserve our support the most.