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Archive for the ‘phones’ Category

End of Support for Fairphone 1: Some Unanswered Questions

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

I previously followed the goings-on at Fairphone a lot more closely than I have done recently, so after having mentioned the obsolescence risks of the first model in an earlier article, it was interesting to discover a Fairphone blog post explaining why the company will no longer support the Fairphone 1. Some of the reasons given are understandable: they went to market with an existing design, focusing instead on minimising the use of conflict minerals; as a result various parts are no longer manufactured or available; the manufacturer they used even stopped producing phones altogether!

A mention of batteries is made in the article, and in community reaction to the announcement, a lot of concern has been expressed about how long the batteries will be good for, whether any kind of replacements might be found, and so on. With today’s bewildering proliferation of batteries of different shapes and sizes, often sealed into devices for guaranteed obsolescence, we are surely storing up a great deal of trouble for the future in this realm. But that is a topic for another time.

In the context of my previous articles about Fairphone, however, what is arguably more interesting is why this recent article fails to properly address the issues of software longevity and support. My first reaction to the Fairphone initiative was caution: it was not at all clear that the company had full control over the software stack, at least within the usual level of expectations. Subsequent information confirmed my suspicions: critical software components were being made available only as proprietary software by MediaTek.

To be fair to Fairphone, the company did acknowledge its shortcomings and promise to do better for Fairphone 2, although I decided to withhold judgement on that particular matter. And for the Fairphone 1, some arrangements were apparently made to secure access to certain software components that had been off-limits. But as I noted in an article on the topic, despite the rather emphatic assurances (“Fairphone has control over the Fairphone 1 source code”), the announcement perhaps raised more questions than it gave answers.

Now, it would seem, we do not get our questions answered as such, but we appear to learn a few things nevertheless. As some people noted in the discussion of the most recent announcement – that of discontinuing support for the device altogether – ceasing the sale of parts and accessories is one thing, but what does that have to do with the software? The only mention of software with any kind of detail in the entire discussion appears to be this:

This is a question of copyright. All the stuff that we would be allowed to publish is pretty boring because it is out there already. The juicy parts are proprietary to Mediatek. There are some Fairphone related changes to open source parts. But they are really really minor…

So what do we learn? That “control over the Fairphone 1 source code” is, in reality, the stuff that is Free Software already, plus various Android customisations done by their software vendor, plus some kind of licence for the real-time operating system deployed on the device. But the MediaTek elephant in the room kept on standing there and everyone agreed not to mention it again.

Naturally, I am far from alone in having noticed the apparent discrepancy between the assurances given and the capabilities Fairphone appeared to have. One can now revisit “the possibility of replacing the Android software by alternative operating systems” mentioned in the earlier, more optimistic announcement and wonder whether this was ever truly realistic, whether it might have ended up being dependent on reverse-engineering efforts or MediaTek suddenly having an episode of uncharacteristic generosity.

I guess that “cooperation from license holders and our own resources” said it all. Although the former thing sounds like the pipedream it always seemed to be, the latter is understandable given the stated need for the company to focus on newer products and keep them funded. We might conclude from this statement that the licensing arrangements for various essential components involved continuing payments that were a burdensome diversion of company resources towards an increasingly unsupportable old product.

If anything this demonstrates why Free Software licensing will always be superior to contractual arrangements around proprietary software that only function as long as everyone feels that the arrangement is lucrative enough. With Free Software, the community could take over the maintenance in as seamless a transition as possible, but in this case they are instead presumably left “high and dry” and in need of a persuasive and perpetually-generous “rich uncle” character to do the necessary deals. It is obvious which one of these options makes more sense. (I have experienced technology communities where people liked to hope for the latter, and it is entertaining only for a short while.)

It is possible that Fairphone 2 provides a platform that is more robust in the face of sourcing and manufacturing challenges, and that there may be a supported software variant that will ultimately be completely Free Software. But with “binary blobs” still apparently required by Fairphone 2, people are right to be concerned that as new products are considered, the company’s next move might not be the necessary step in the right direction that maintains the flexibility that modularity should be bringing whilst remedying the continuing difficulties that the software seems to be causing.

With other parties now making loud noises about phones that run Free Software, promising big things that will eventually need to be delivered to be believed, maybe it would not be out of place to suggest that instead of “big bang” funding campaigns for entirely new one-off products, these initiatives start to work together. Maybe someone could develop a “compute module” for the Fairphone 2 modular architecture, if it lends itself to that. If not, maybe people might consider working towards something that would allow everyone to deliver the things they do best. Otherwise, I fear that we will keep seeing the same mistakes occur over and over again.

Three-and-a-half years’ support is not very encouraging for a phone that should promote sustainability, and the software inputs to this unfortunate situation were clear to me as an outsider over four years ago. That cannot be changed now, and so I just hope Fairphone has learned enough from this and from all the other things that have happened since, so that they may make better decisions in the future and make phones that truly are, as they claim themselves, “built to last”.

Random Questions about Fairphone Source Code Availability

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

I was interested to read the recent announcement about source code availability for the first Fairphone device. I’ve written before about the threat to that device’s continued viability and Fairphone’s vague position on delivering a device that properly supports Free Software. It is nice to see that the initiative takes such matters seriously and does not seem to feel that letting its partners serve up what they have lying around is sufficient. However, a few questions arise, starting with the following quote from the announcement:

We can happily say that we have recently obtained a software license from all our major partners and license holders that allows us to modify the Fairphone 1 software and release new versions to our users. Getting that license also required us to obtain rights to use and distribute Mentor Graphics’s RTOS used on the phone. (We want to thank Mentor Graphics in making it possible for us to acquire the distribution license for their RTOS, as well as other partners for helping us achieve this.)

I noted before that various portions of the software are already subject to copyleft licensing, but if we ignore those (and trust that the sources were already being made available), it is interesting to consider the following questions:

  • What is “the Fairphone 1 software” exactly?
  • Fairphone may modify the software but what about its customers?
  • What role does the Mentor Graphics RTOS have? Can it be replaced by customers with something else?
  • Do the rights to use and distribute the RTOS extend to customers?
  • Do those rights extend to the source code of the RTOS, and do those rights uphold the four freedoms?

On further inspection, some contradictions emerge, perhaps most efficiently encapsulated by the following quote:

Now that Fairphone has control over the Fairphone 1 source code, what’s next? First of all, we can say that we have no plans to stop supporting the Fairphone hardware. We will continue to apply security fixes as long as it is feasible for the years to come. We will also keep exploring ways to increase the longevity of the Fairphone 1. Possibilities include upgrading to a more recent Android version, although we would like to manage expectations here as this is still very much a longshot dependent on cooperation from license holders and our own resources.

If Fairphone has control over the source code, why is upgrading to a more recent Android version dependent on cooperation with licence holders? If Fairphone “has control” then the licence holders should already have provided the necessary permissions for Fairphone to actually take control, just as one would experience with the four freedoms. One wonders which permissions have been withheld and whether these are being illegitimately withheld for software distributed under copyleft licences.

With a new device in the pipeline, I respect the persistence of Fairphone in improving the situation, but perhaps the following quote summarises the state of the industry and the struggle for sustainable licensing and licence compliance:

It is rather unusual for a small company like Fairphone to get such a license (usually ODMs get these and handle most of the work for their clients) and it is uncommon that a company attempts and manages to obtain such a license towards the end of the economic life cycle of the product.

Sadly, original design manufacturers (ODMs) have a poor reputation: often being known for throwing binaries over the wall whilst being unable or unwilling to supply the corresponding sources, with downstream manufacturers and retailers claiming that they have no leverage to rectify such licence violations. Although the injustices and hardships of those working to supply the raw materials for products like the Fairphone, along with those of the people working to construct the devices themselves, make other injustices seem slight – thinking especially of those experienced by software developers whose copyright is infringed by dubious industry practices – dealing with unethical and untidy practices wherever they may be found should be part of the initiative’s objectives.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Fairphone 2 should have a better story for chipset support and Free Software, but again, an inspection of the message raises some awkward questions. For example:

In the coming months we are going to launch several programs that address different aspects of creating fairer software. For now, one of the best tools for us to reach these goals is to embrace open source principles. With this in mind and without further ado, we’re excited to announce that we are going to release the complete build environment for Fairphone OS on Fairphone 2, which contains the full open source code, all the tools and the binary blobs that will allow users to build their own Fairphone OS.

To be fair, binary blobs are often difficult to avoid: desktop computers often use them for various devices, and even devices like the Neo900 that emphasise a completely Free Software stack will end up using them for certain functions (mitigating this by employing other technical measures). Making the build environment available is a good thing: frequently, this aspect is overlooked and anyone requesting the source code can be left guessing about build configuration details in an exercise that is effectively a matter of doing the vendor’s licence compliance work for them. But here, we are left wondering where the open source code ends, where binary blobs will be padding out the distribution, and what those blobs are actually for.

We need to keep asking difficult questions about such matters even if what Fairphone is doing is worthy in its own right. Not only does it safeguard the interests of the customers involved, but it also helps Fairphone to focus on doing the right thing. It does feel unkind to criticise what seems like a noble initiative for not doing more when they obviously try rather hard to do the right thing in so many respects. But by doing the right thing in terms of the software as well, Fairphone can uphold its own reputation and credibility: something that all businesses need to remember, as certain very large companies have very recently discovered.

New Fairphone, New Features, Same Old Software Story?

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

I must admit that I haven’t been following Fairphone of late, so it was a surprise to see that vague details of the second Fairphone device have been published on the Fairphone Web site. One aspect that seems to be a substantial improvement is that of hardware modularity. Since the popularisation of the notion that such a device could be built by combining functional units as if they were simple building blocks, with a lot of concepts, renderings and position statements coming from a couple of advocacy initiatives, not much else has actually happened in terms of getting devices out for people to use and develop further. And there are people with experience of designing such end-user products who are sceptical about the robustness and economics of such open-ended modular solutions. To see illustrations of a solution that will presumably be manufactured takes the idea some way along the road to validation.

If it is possible to, say, switch out the general-purpose computing unit of the Fairphone with another one, then it can be said that even if the Fairphone initiative fails once again to deliver a software solution that is entirely Free Software, perhaps because the choice of hardware obliges the initiative to deliver opaque “binary-only” payloads, then the opportunity might be there for others to deliver a bottom-to-top free-and-open solution as a replacement component. But one might hope that it should not be necessary to “opt in” to getting a system whose sources can be obtained, rebuilt and redeployed: that the second Fairphone device might have such desirable characteristics out of the box.

Now, it does seem that Fairphone acknowledges the existence and the merits of Free Software, at least in very broad terms. Reading the support site provides us with an insight into the current situation with regard to software freedom and Fairphone:

Our goal is to take a more open source approach to be able to offer owners more choice and control over their phone’s OS. For example, we want to make the source code available to the developer community and we are also in discussions with other OS vendors to look at the possibility of offering alternative operating systems for the Fairphone 2. However, at the moment there are parts of the software that are owned or licensed by third parties, so we are still investigating the technical and legal requirements to accomplish our goals of open software.

First of all, ignoring vague terms like “open software” that are susceptible to “openwashing” (putting the label “open” on something that really isn’t), it should be noted that various parts of the deployed software will, through their licensing, oblige the Fairphone initiative to make the corresponding source code available. This is not a matter that can be waved away with excuses about people’s hands being tied, that it is difficult to coordinate, or whatever else the average GPL-violating vendor might make. If copyleft-licensed code ships, the sources must follow.

Now there may also be proprietary software on the device (or permissively-licensed software bearing no obligation for anyone to release the corresponding source, which virtually amounts to the same thing) and that would clearly be against software freedom and should be something Fairphone should strongly consider avoiding, because neither end-users nor anyone who may wish to help those users would have any control over such software, and they would be completely dependent on the vendor, who in turn would be completely dependent on their suppliers, who in turn might suddenly not care about the viability of that software or the devices on which it is deployed. So much for sustainability under such circumstances!

As I noted before, having control over the software is not a perk for those who wish to “geek out” over the internals of a product: it is a prerequisite for product viability, longevity and sustainability. Let us hope that Fairphone can not only learn and apply the lessons from their first device, which may indeed have occurred with the choice of a potentially supportable chipset this time around, but that the initiative can also understand and embrace their obligations to those who produced the bulk of their software (as well as to their customers) in a coherent and concrete fashion. It would be a shame if, once again, an unwillingness to focus on software led to another missed opportunity, and the need for another version of the device to be brought to market to remedy deficiencies in what is otherwise a well-considered enterprise.

Now, if only Fairphone could organise their Web site in a more coherent fashion, putting useful summaries of essential information in obvious places instead of being buried in some random forum post

EOMA-68: The Return

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

It is hard to believe that almost two years have passed since I criticised the Ubuntu Edge crowd-funding campaign for being a distraction from true open hardware initiatives (becoming one which also failed to reach its funding target, but was presumably good advertising for Ubuntu’s mobile efforts for a short while). Since then, the custodians of Ubuntu have pressed on with their publicity stunts, the most recent of which involving limited initial availability of an Ubuntu-branded smartphone that may very well have been shipping without the corresponding source code for the GPL-licensed software being available, even though it is now claimed that this issue has been remedied. Given the problems with the same chipset vendor in other products, I personally cannot help feeling that the matter might need more investigation, but then again, I personally do not have time to chase up licence compliance in other people’s products, either.

Meanwhile, some genuine open hardware initiatives were mentioned in that critique of Ubuntu’s mobile strategy: GTA04 is the continuing effort to produce a smartphone that continues the legacy of the Openmoko Neo FreeRunner, whose experiences are now helping to produce the Neo900 evolution of the Nokia N900 smartphone; Novena is an open hardware laptop that was eventually successfully crowd-funded and is in the process of shipping to backers; OpenPandora is a handheld games console, the experiences from which have since been harnessed to initiate the DragonBox Pyra product with a very similar physical profile and target audience. There is a degree of collaboration and continuity within some of these projects, too: the instigator of the GTA04 project is assisting with the Neo900 and the Pyra, for example, partly because these projects use largely the same hardware platform. And, of course, GNU/Linux is the foundation of the software for all this hardware.

But in general, open hardware projects remain fairly isolated entities, perhaps only clustering into groups around particular chipsets or hardware platforms. And when it comes to developing a physical device, the amount of re-use and sharing between projects is perhaps less than we might have come to expect from software, particularly Free Software. Not that this has necessarily slowed the deluge of boards, devices, products and crowd-funding campaigns: everywhere you look, there’s a new Arduino variant or something claiming to be the next big thing in the realm of the “Internet of Things” (IoT), but after a while one gets the impression that it is the same thing being funded and sold, over and over again, with the audience probably not realising that it has all mostly been done before.

The Case for Modularity

Against this backdrop, there is one interesting and somewhat unusual initiative that I have only briefly mentioned before: the development of the EOMA-68 (Embedded Open Modular Architecture 68) standard along with products to demonstrate it. Unlike the average single-board computer or system-on-module board, EOMA-68 attempts to define a widely-used modular computing unit which is also a complete computing device, delegating input (keyboards, mice, storage) and output (displays) to other devices. It has often been repeated that today phones are just general-purpose computers that happen to be able to make calls, and the same can be said for a lot of consumer electronics equipment that traditionally were either much simpler devices or which only employed special-purpose computing units to perform their work: televisions are a reasonably illustrative example of this.

And of course, computers as we know them come in all shapes and sizes now: phones, media players, handhelds, tablets, netbooks, laptops, desktops, workstations, and so on. But most of these devices are not built to be upgraded when the core computing part of them becomes obsolete or, at the very least, less attractive than the computing features of newer devices, nor can the purchaser mix and match the computing part of one device with the potentially more attractive parts of another: one kind of smart television may have a much better screen but a poorer user interface that one would want to replace, for example. There are workarounds – some people use USB-based “plug computers” to give their televisions “smart” capabilities – but when you buy a device, you typically have to settle for the bundled software and computing hardware (even if the software might eventually be modifiable thanks to the role of the GPL, subject to constraints imposed by manufacturers that might prevent modification).

With a modular computing unit, the element of choice is obviously enhanced, but it also helps those developing open hardware. First of all, the interface to the computing unit is well-defined, meaning that the designers of a device need not be overly concerned with the way the general-purpose computing functionality is to be provided beyond the physical demands of that particular module and the facilities provided by it. Beyond such constraints, being able to rely on a tested functional element, designers can focus on the elements of their device that differentiate it from other devices without having to master the integration of their own components of interest with those required for the computing functionality in one “make or break” hardware design that might prove too demanding to get right first time (or even second or third time). Prototyping complicated circuit designs can quickly incur considerable costs, and eliminating complexity from what might be described as the “peripheral board” – the part providing the input and output capabilities and the character of a particular device – not only reduces the risk of getting things wrong, but it could make the production of that board cheaper, too. And that might open up device design to a broader group of participants.

As Nico Rikken explains, EOMA-68 promises to offer benefits for hardware designers, software developers and customers. Modularity does make sense if properly considered, which is perhaps why other modularity initiatives like Phonebloks have plenty of critics even though they share the same worthy objectives of reducing waste and avoiding device obsolescence: with vague statements about modularity and the hint of everything being interchangeable and interoperating with everything, one cannot help be skeptical about the potential complexity and interoperability problems that could result, not to mention the ergonomic issues that most people can easily relate to. By focusing on the general-purpose computing aspect of modularity, EOMA-68 addresses the most important part of the hardware for Free Software and delegates modularity elsewhere in the system to other initiatives that do not claim to do it all.

A Few False Starts

Unfortunately, not everything has gone precisely according to schedule with EOMA-68 so far. After originally surfacing as part of an initiative to make a competitive ARM-based netbook, the plan was to make computing modules and “engineering boards” on the way to delivering a complete product, and the progress of the first module can be followed on the Allwinner A10 news page on the Rhombus Tech Web site. From initial interest from various parties at the start of 2012, and through a considerable amount of activity, by May 2013, working A10 boards were demonstrated running Debian Wheezy. And a follow-up board employing the Allwinner A20 instead of the A10 was demonstrated running Debian at the end of October 2014 as part of a micro-desktop solution.

One might have thought that these devices would be more widely available by now, particularly as development began in 2012 on a tablet board to complement the computing modules, with apparently steady progress being made. Now, the development of this tablet was driven by the opportunity to collaborate with the Vivaldi tablet project, whose own product had been rendered unusable for Free Software usage by the usual product iteration performed behind the scenes by the contract manufacturer changing the components in use without notice (as is often experienced by those buying computers to run Free Software operating systems, only to discover that the wireless chipset, say, is no longer one that is supported by Free Software). With this increased collaboration with KDE-driven hardware initiatives (Improv and Vivaldi), efforts seemingly became directed towards satisfying potential customers within the framework of those other initiatives, so that to acquire the micro-engineering board one would seek to purchase an Improv board instead, and to obtain a complete tablet product one would place an advance order for the Vivaldi tablet instead of anything previously under development.

Somehow during 2014, the collaboration between the participants in this broader initiative appears to have broken down, with there undoubtedly being different perspectives on the sequence of events that led to the cancellation of Improv and Vivaldi. Trawling the mailing list archives gives more detail but not much more clarity, and it can perhaps only be said that mistakes may have been made and that everybody learned new things about certain aspects of doing business with other people. The effect, especially in light of the deluge of new and shiny products for casual observers to purchase instead of engaging in this community, and with many people presumably being told that their Vivaldi tablet would not be shipping after all, probably meant that many people lost interest and, indeed, hope that there would be anything worth holding out for.

The Show Goes On

One might have thought that such a setback would have brought about the end of the initiative, but its instigator shows no sign of quitting, probably because genuine hardware has been made, and other opportunities and collaborations have been created on the way. Initially, the focus was on an ARM-based netbook or tablet that would run Free Software without the vendor neglecting to provide the complete corresponding source for things like the Linux kernel and bootloader required to operate the device. This requirement for licence compliance has not disappeared or diminished, with continuing scrutiny placed on vendors to make sure that they are not just throwing binaries over the wall.

But as experience was gained in evaluating suitable CPUs, it was not only ARM CPUs that were found to have the necessary support characteristics for software freedom as well as for low power consumption. The Ingenic jz4775, a sibling of the rather less capable jz4720 used by the Ben NanoNote, uses the MIPS architecture and may well be fully supported by the mainline Linux kernel in the near future; the ICubeCorp IC1T is a more exotic CPU that can be supported by Free Software toolchains and should be able to run the Linux kernel in addition to Android. Alongside these, the A20 remains the most suitable of the options from Allwinner, whose products have always been competitively priced (which has also been a consideration), but there are other ARM derivatives that would be more interesting from a vendor cooperation perspective, notably the TI AM389x series of CPUs.

Meanwhile, after years of questions about whether a crowd-funding campaign would be started to attract customers and to get the different pieces of hardware built in quantity, plans for such a campaign are now underway. While initial calls for a campaign may have been premature, I now think that the time is right: people have been using the hardware already produced for some time, and considerable experience has been amassed along the way up to this point; the risks should be substantially lower than quite a few other crowd-funding campaigns that seem to be approved and funded these days. Not that anyone should seek to conceal the nature of crowd-funding and the in-built element of risk associated with such campaigns, of course: it is not the same as buying a product from a store.

Nevertheless, I would be very interested to see this hardware being made, and I am even on record as having said so. Part of this is selfishness: I could do with some newer, quieter, less power-consuming hardware. But I also think that a choice of different computing modules, supporting Free Software operating systems out of the box, with some of them candidates for FSF endorsement, and offering a diversity of architectures, would be beneficial to a sustainable computing infrastructure in the longer term. If you also think so, maybe you should follow the progress of EOMA-68 over the coming weeks and months, too.

Open Hardware and Free Software: Not Just For The Geeks

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

Having seen my previous article about the Fairphone initiative’s unfortunate choice of technologies mentioned in various discussions about the Fairphone, I feel a certain responsibility to follow up on some of the topics and views that tend to get aired in these discussions. In response to an article about an “open operating system” for the Fairphone, a rather solid comment was made about how the initiative still seems to be approaching the problem from the wrong angle.

Because the article comments have been delegated to a proprietary service that may at some point “garbage-collect” them from the public record, I reproduce the comment here (and I also expanded the link previously provided by a link-shortening service for similar and other reasons):

You are having it all upside down.
Just make your platform open instead of using proprietary chipsets with binary blobs! Then porting Firefox OS to the Fairphone would be easy as pie.

Not listening to the people who said that only free software running on open hardware would be really fair is exactly what brought you this mess: Our approach to software and ongoing support for the first Fairphones
It is also why I advised all of my friends and acquaintances not to order a Fairphone until it becomes a platform that respects user freedom. Turns out I was more than right.
If the Fairphone was an open platform that could run Firefox OS, Replicant or pure Debian, I would tell everybody in need of a cellphone to buy one.

I don’t know the person who wrote this comment, but it is very well-formulated, and one wouldn’t think that there would be much to add. Unfortunately, some people seem to carry around their own misconceptions about some of the concepts mentioned above, and unfortunately, they are quite happy to propagate those misconceptions as if they were indisputable facts. Below, I state the real facts in the headings and quote each one of the somewhat less truthful misconceptions for further scrutiny.

Open Hardware and Free Software is for Everyone

Fairphone should not make the mistake of producing a phone for geeks. Instead, it should become a phone for everyone.

Just because people have an opinion about technology and wish to see certain guarantees made about the nature of that technology does not mean that the result is “for geeks”. In fact, making the hardware open means that more people can figure things out about it, improve it, understand it, and improve the way it works and the software that uses it. Making the software truly open means that more people can change it, fix it, enhance it, and extend the usable life of the device. All of this benefits everyone, whereas closed hardware and proprietary software ultimately benefit only the small groups of people who respectively designed the device and wrote the software, both of whom being very likely to lose interest in sustaining the life of that product as soon as they have another one they want to sell you. (And often, in the case of the hardware, as soon as it leaves the factory.)

User Freedom Means Exactly User Freedom

‘User freedom’ is often used when actually ‘developers freedom’ is meant. It is more of an ideology.

Incorrect! Those of us who use the term Free Software know exactly what we mean: it is the freedom of the end-user to exercise precisely those privileges that have resulted in the work being produced and delivered to them. Now, there are people who advocate “permissive licences” that do favour developers in that they allow people to use the work of others and to then provide a piece of software under conditions that grants the end-user only limited privileges, taking away those privileges to see how the entire work is constructed, along with those that allow the entire work to be improved and shared. Whether one sees either of these as an ideology, presumably emphasising one’s own “pragmatism” in contrast, is largely irrelevant because the genuine pragmatism involved in Free Software and the propagation of a broader set of privileges actually delivers sustainability: users – genuine end-users, not middle-men – get the freedom to participate in how the product turns out, and crucially, how it lives on after the original producer has decided to go off and do something else.

Openness Does Not Preclude Fanciness (But Security Requires Openness)

What people want is: user friendly interface, security/privacy, good specs and ability to install apps and games. [...] OpenSource is a nice idea, but has its disadvantages too: who is caring about quality?

It’s just too easy for people to believe claims about privacy and security, even after everybody found out that they were targets of widespread surveillance, even after various large corporations who presumably care about their reputations have either lost the personal details of their users to criminals or have shared those details with others (who also have criminal or unethical intent), and when believing the sales-pitch about total privacy and robust security, those people will happily reassure themselves and others that no company would allow its reputation to be damaged by any breach of privacy or security! But there are no guarantees of security or privacy if you cannot trust the systems you use, and there is no way of trusting them without being able to inspect how they work. More than ever, people need genuine guarantees of security and privacy – not reassurances from salesmen and advertisers – and the best way to start off on the path towards such guarantees is to be able to deploy Free Software on a device that you fully control.

And as for quality, user-friendliness and all the desirable stuff: how many people use products like Firefox in its various forms every single day? Such Free Software solutions have not merely set the standard over the years, but they have kept technologies like the Web relevant and viable, in stark contrast to proprietary bundled programs like Internet Explorer that have actually impaired technological and social progress, with “IE” doing its bit by exhibiting a poor record of adherence to standards and a continuous parade of functionality and security bugs, not to mention constant usability frustrations endured by its unfortunate (and frequently involuntary) audience of users.

Your Priorities Make Free Software Important

I found the following comment to be instructive:

For me open source isn’t important. My priorities are longevity/updates, support, safety/privacy.

The problem is this: how can you guarantee longevity, updates, support, safety and privacy without openness? Safety and privacy would require you to have blind trust in someone whose claims you cannot verify. Longevity, updates and support require you to rely on the original producer’s continued interest in the product that you have just purchased from them, and should it become more profitable for them to focus on other products (that they might want you to buy instead of continuing to use the one you have), you might be able to rely on the goodwill of that producer to transfer their responsibilities to others to do the thankless tasks of maintenance and support. But it may well be the case that no amount of money will be able to keep that product viable for you: the producer may simply refuse to support it or to let others support it. Perhaps some people may step in and reverse-engineer the product and make an effort to keep it viable, but wouldn’t it be better to have an open product to start with, where people can choose how it is maintained – and thus sustained – for as long as people still want to use it?

Concepts like open hardware and Free Software sound like topics for the particularly-interested, but they provide the foundations for those topics of increasing interest and attention that people claim to care so much about. Everybody deserves things like choice, democracy, privacy, security, safety, control over their own lives and destinies, and so on. Closed hardware and proprietary software may be used on lots of devices, and people may be getting a lot of use out of those devices, but the users of those devices enjoy the benefits only as long as it remains in the interests of the producers of those devices and the accompanying software to allow them to do so. Furthermore, few or none of those users can be sure whether any of those important things – their rights – are being impaired by their use of those devices. Are their communications being intercepted, collected, analysed? Few people would ever know.

Free Software and open hardware empower their users with the control that proprietary technologies deny their users. But shouldn’t everybody be able to benefit from such control? That’s why a device that is open hardware and which runs Free Software really is for everyone, not just for “geeks”.

The Unplanned Obsolescence of the First Fairphone Device

Friday, December 12th, 2014

About a year-and-a-half ago, I gave my impressions of the Fairphone, noting that the initiative was worthy in terms of its social and sustainability goals, but that it had neglected the “fairness” of the software to be provided with each device. Although the Fairphone organisation had made “root access” – or more correctly stated, “owner control” – of the device a priority and had decided to provide its user interface enhancements to Android as Free Software, it had chosen to use a set of hardware technologies with a poor record of support for Free Software.

It might be said that such an initiative cannot possibly hope to act in the most prudent manner in every respect. However, unlike expertise in minerals sourcing, complicated global supply chains, and proprietary manufacturing activities, expertise on matters of hardware support for Free Software is available almost in abundance to anyone who can be bothered to ask. Many people already struggle with poorly-supported hardware for which only binary firmware or driver releases are available from the manufacturer, often resulting in incorrectly-performing hardware with no chance of future fixes as the manufacturer discontinues support in order to focus on selling new products. Others struggle with continuing but inconvenient forms of support on the manufacturer’s own timescale and terms.

Consequently, there are increasing numbers of people with experience of reverse engineering, documenting, and reimplementing firmware and drivers for proprietary hardware, many of whom would only be too happy to share their experiences with others wishing to avoid the pitfalls of being tied to a proprietary hardware vendor with a proprietary software mentality. There are also communities developing open hardware who seek out enlightened hardware vendors that encourage Free Software drivers for their products and may even support firmware that is also Free Software on their devices. There are even people developing smartphones in the open whose experiences and opinions would surely be valuable to anyone needing advice on the more reliable, open and trustworthy hardware vendors.

One community that has remained active despite various setbacks is the one pursuing the development of the EOMA-68 modular computing platform. It was precisely this kind of “ODM versus chipset vendor versus Free Software community” circus that prompted the development of an open platform and attempts to reach out and cultivate constructive communications with various silicon vendors. Such vendors, notably Allwinner Technology (in the case of EOMA-68), but also other companies that have previously been open to dialogue, have had the realisation that Free Software is an asset, and that Free Software communities are their partners and not just a bunch of people whose work can be taken and used without paying attention to the terms under which that work was originally shared. Such dialogues are ongoing and are subject to setbacks as well as progress, but it is far better to cultivate good practices than to ignore bad practices and to dump the ugly result onto the end-user.

Now, the Fairphone organisation has started to reconsider the software issue in light of the real possibility that their device will not be upgradeable beyond an old release of Android:

“We are actively looking at ways to achieve this goal, but we’re trying to be realistic and face the fact that the first Fairphones will most likely not be upgraded beyond Android 4.2.”

Given that the viability of devices depends not only on the continued functioning of the hardware but also the correct functioning of the software, and that one motivation that many people have stated for upgrading their phone is to gain access to a supported operating system distribution and/or one that supports applications they need or desire, the unfortunate neglect of software sustainability has undermined the general sustainability of the device. It may very well be the case that the Fairphone organisation’s initiatives around re-use and recycling can mitigate the problems caused by any abandonment of these devices, as people seek out replacements that do what they demand of them, but one of the most potent goals of reducing consumption by providing a long-lasting device has been undermined by something that should be the easiest part of the product to change, maintain, upgrade and even to remedy shortcomings with the chosen physical components; something whose lifespan is dictated far less by physical constraints than the assembly of physical components making up the device itself.

It is quite possible that certain industry practices have remained unknown to the Fairphone organisation, despite bitter experiences elsewhere, and that they are only now catching up with what many other people have learned over the years:

“Our chipset vendor MediaTek is only publicly releasing what it is bound to by the obligatory terms of the GNU public license GPL (the Linux Kernel and a few userland programs) and has chosen not to release any of the Android source code.”

Once again, the GPL demonstrates its worth as a necessary tool to ensure that the end-user remains in control. Unfortunately, Google decided that the often shoddy practices of its hardware and industry partners should be indulged by allowing them to make proprietary products with Google’s permissively-licensed code. It could be worse: some hardware vendors violate the GPL and blame their suppliers, requiring anyone seeking recourse to traverse the supply chain as far as it goes, potentially to some obscure company in a faraway land whose management plead poverty while actually doing very nicely selling their services to anyone willing to pay; others just appear to brazenly violate the GPL and dare someone to sue them.

The Fairphone organisation could have valued the sustainability benefits of Free Software and cooperative hardware vendors. In doing so, by merely asking for informed opinions, they would have avoided this mess entirely. Unfortunately, they may have focused too narrowly only on certain worthy and necessary topics, maintaining an oversimplified view of software that, if mainstream media punditry is to be believed, is merely transient and interchangeable: something that can be made to run on any hardware as if by magic, with each upgrade replacing what was there before with something that is always better, only ever offering improvements and benefits. Those of us with more than a passing knowledge of systems development know that such beliefs are really delusions produced from a lack of experience or a wish to believe that unfamiliar things are easier than they actually are.

Since we cannot go back and change the way things were done before, I suppose that now is the time to deliver on the sustainability promise by fully and properly promoting and supporting Free Software on any future Fairphone device. Which means that the Fairphone organisation has to start listening to people with experience of reliably deploying and supporting Free Software on open or properly-documented hardware, instead of going along with whatever some supplier (and their potentially GPL-violating associates) would have them do just to get the contract in the bag and the device out of the door.

Mobile Tethering, Privacy and Predatory Practices

Saturday, April 26th, 2014

Daniel Pocock provides some fairly solid analogies regarding arbitrary restrictions on mobile network usage, but his blog system seems to reject my comment, so here it is, mostly responding to Adam Skutt’s remark on “gas-guzzlers” (cars that needlessly consume more petrol/gasoline than they really need to).

The second example or analogy mentions “exotic” cars, not necessarily gas-guzzling ones. The point being highlighted is that when producers can ascertain or merely speculate that customers can afford higher prices, they may decide to exploit those customers; things like “tourist prices” are another example of such predatory practices.

I think the first example is a fairly solid rebuttal of the claim that this is all about likely bandwidth consumption (and that tethered devices would demand more than mobile devices). Just as the details of the occupants of a vehicle should be of no concern to a petrol station owner, so should the details of network-using programs be of no concern to a mobile network operator.

Operators are relying on the assumption that phones are so restricted that their network usage will be constrained accordingly, but this won’t be the case forever and may not even be the case now. They should stop pining for the days when phones were totally under their own control, with every little feature being a paid upgrade to unlock capabilities that the device had from the moment it left the factory.

I know someone whose carrier-locked phone wouldn’t share pictures over Bluetooth whereas unlocked phones of the same type would happily do so. Smartphones are said to be a computer in one’s pocket: this means that we should also fight to uphold the same general purpose computing rights that, throughout the years, various organisations have sought to deny us all from our desktop and laptop computers.

Neo900: Turning the corner

Monday, December 2nd, 2013

Back when I last wrote about the status of the Neo900 initiative, the fundraising had just begun and the target was a relatively modest €25000 by “crowdfunding” standards. That target was soon reached, but it was only ever the initial target: the sum of money required to prototype the device and to demonstrate that the device really could be made and could eventually be sold to interested customers. Thus, to communicate the further objectives of the project, the Neo900 site updated their funding status bar to show further funding objectives that go beyond mere demonstrations of feasibility and that also cover different levels of production.

So what happened here? Well, one of the slightly confusing things was that even though people were donating towards the project’s goals, it was not really possible to consider all of them as potential customers, so if 200 people had donated something (anything from, say, €10 right up to €5000), one could not really rely on them all coming back later to buy a finished device. People committing €100 or more might be considered as a likely purchaser, especially since donations of that size are effectively treated as pledges to buy and qualify for a rebate on a finished device, but people donating less might just be doing so to support the project. Indeed, people donating €100 or more might also only be doing so to support the project, but it is probably reasonable to expect that the more people have given, the more likely they are to want to buy something in the end. And, of course, if someone donates the entire likely cost of a device, a purchase has effectively been made already.

So even though the initiative was able to gauge a certain level of interest, it was not able to do so precisely purely by considering the amount of financial support it had been receiving. Consequently, by measuring donations of €100 or more, a more realistic impression of the scale of eventual production could be obtained. As most people are aware, producing things in sufficient quantity may be the only way that a product can get made: setup costs, minimum orders of components, and other factors mean that small runs of production are prohibitively expensive. With 200 effective pledges to buy, the initiative can move beyond the prototyping phase and at least consider the production phase – when they are ready, of course – without worrying too much that there will be a lack of customers.

Since my last report, media coverage has even extended into the technology mainstream, with Wired even doing a news article about it. Meanwhile, the project itself demonstrated mechanically compatible hardware and the modem hardware they intend to use, also summarising component availability and potential problems with the sourcing of certain components. For the most part, things are looking good indeed, with perhaps the only cloud on the horizon being a component with a 1000-unit minimum order quantity. That is why the project will not be stopping with 200 potential customers: the more people that jump on board, the greater the chances that everyone will be able to get a better configuration for the device.

If this were a mainstream “crowdfunding” effort, they might call that a “stretch goal”, but it is really a consequence of the way manufacturing is done these days, giving us economies of scale on the one hand, but raising the threshold for new entrants and independent efforts on the other. Perhaps we will eventually see innovations in small-scale manufacturing, not just in the widely-hyped 3D printing field, but for everything from electronic circuits to screens and cases, that may help eliminate some of the huge fixed costs and make it possible to design and make complicated devices relatively cheaply.

It will certainly be interesting to see how many more people choose to extend the lifespan of their N900 by signing up, or how many embrace the kind of smartphone that the “fickle market” supposedly does not want any more. Maybe as more people join in, more will be encouraged to join in as well, and so some kind of snowball effect might occur. Certainly, with the transparency shown in the project so far, people will at least be able to make an informed decision about whether they join in or not. And hopefully, we will eventually see some satisfied customers with open hardware running Free Software, good to go for another few years, emphasizing once again that the combination is an essential ingredient in a sustainable technological society.

Neo900: And they’re off!

Friday, November 1st, 2013

Having mentioned the Neo900 smartphone initiative previously, it seems pertinent to note that it has moved beyond the discussion phase and into the fundraising phase. Compared to the Ubuntu Edge, the goals are fairly modest – 25000 euros versus tens of millions of dollars – but the way this money will be spent has been explained in somewhat more detail than appeared to be the case for the Ubuntu Edge. Indeed, the Neo900 initiative has released a feasibility study document describing the challenges confronting the project: it contains a lot more detail than the typical “we might experience some setbacks” disclaimer on the average Kickstarter campaign page.

It’s also worth noting that as the Neo900 inherits a lot from the GTA04, as the title of the feasibility study document indicates when it refers to the device as the “GTA04b7″, and as the work is likely to be done largely within the auspices of the existing GTA04 endeavour, the fundraising is being done by Golden Delicious (the originators of the GTA04) themselves. From reading the preceding discussion around the project, popular fundraising sites appear to have conditions or restrictions that did not appeal to the project participants: Kickstarter has geographical limitations (coincidentally involving the signatory nations of the increasingly notorious UKUSA Agreement), and most fundraising sites also take a share of the raised funds. Such trade-offs may make sense for campaigns wanting to reach a large audience (and who know how to promote themselves to get prominence on such sites), but if you know who your audience is and how to reach them, and if you already have a functioning business, it could make sense to cut the big campaign sites out of the loop.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens next. An Openmoko successor coming to the rescue of a product made by the mobile industry’s previously most dominant force: that probably isn’t what some people expected, either at Openmoko or at that once-dominant vendor.

Neo900: Combining Communities to Create Opportunities

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Ever since the withdrawal of Openmoko from open smartphone development, it appears to have been challenging to find large numbers of people who might be interested in supporting similar open hardware efforts, either by having them put down money to fund the development and production of devices, or by encouraging them to develop Free Software to run on the hardware produced by those efforts. That anyone can go and buy an Android phone and tell themselves that it is just like that dream they once had of running Linux on a phone (if they turn the lights down low enough and ignore the technical and ethical limitations) serves as just enough of a distraction to keep people merely curious about things like Openmoko and open hardware, persuading them to hold off supporting such things until everybody else has jumped on board and already made it a safe choice. It almost goes without saying that where risk-takers are needed to make something happen, that thing is not going to happen if everybody looks to everybody else to take the risk. (And even when people do take the risk, they seem to think that their pledges and donations are as good as money in the bank, but that is another story.)

Naturally, the Ubuntu Edge campaign showed that some money is floating around and can be attracted to suitably exciting projects. Unfortunately, one may be tempted to conclude that anything more mundane than a next generation product – one that can only be delivered at some point in the future, once it becomes feasible and economic to manufacture and sell something with “out of this world” specifications – is unlikely to attract the interest of potential customers with money to pledge towards something. Such potential customers surely want something their money cannot already buy, and offering only things like openness and freedom as enhancements to today’s specifications is perhaps not exciting enough for some of those people.

It is therefore rather refreshing that two communities have recently become more aware of the possibilities offered by, and available to, open hardware: the OpenPhoenux community with their ongoing GTA04 project to follow on from the work of Openmoko, and the Maemo community seeking a sustainable future beyond the now-discontinued Nokia N900 smartphone. Despite heroic efforts to sustain the GTA04 project, outside interest has apparently been low enough that additional production has been placed on hold: a minimum number of orders needs to exist before any kind of further manufacturing can take place. Meanwhile, a community of people whose devices may one day fail to function or perhaps no longer function already, forcing them to seek replacements in the second-hand market with all the usual online auction profiteering and the purchasing uncertainties that go along with it, have been made aware of an active hardware project whose foundations largely resemble those of the devices they wish to sustain.

So, unlike Ubuntu Edge, the Neo900 initiative is not offering next year’s hardware. In fact, it is not even offering this year’s hardware. But what it does offer is a sustainable path into the future for those who like the form factor and software provided by the N900: people who were having to come to terms with buying a device that would not be as satisfactory as the one they already have, merely because the device they already have has reached the end of its usable life, and because the mobile device industry has a different idea of progress from the one they happen to have. In effect, the Neo900 is about taking control, owning the roadmap, deciding when or whether the fads and fashions of the industry at large will serve them better, and being able to choose or to reject the wider industry’s offerings on a more reasonable timescale.

The N900, as a product abandoned some time ago by Nokia as it retreated into being a vassal state of the Microsoft empire, gets an opportunity to rise from the ashes of the ruin wrought by the establishment of that corporate relationship. At a time where Nokia sees its core business incorporated into Microsoft itself in the final chapter of what has to be one of the most widely predicted and reported acts of alleged corporate looting in recent years, and where former Nokia executives announce plans to re-establish the business independently by attracting neglected Nokia talent, the open phoenix in the form of OpenPhoenux may help the N900 to rise above its troubled past and to shine once again as its former custodians struggle with the mayhem of corporate integration or corporate reconstruction, depending on where they end up.

People might wonder why anyone would want more of the same rather than something new, different, exciting, shiny. The fact is that away from the noise of exhibition floor, trade show and developer conference demonstrations, most people just want something that works and, preferably, something they already know. Their life goes on and does not wait for them to have to learn the latest gestures and moves to make some new gadget do what their old gadget was doing before it broke down. Some people – those with an N900 or those who wanted one – now have a new opportunity available to them, thanks to open hardware and the Neo900 initiative. For the rest of us, it offers more choice and maybe some hope that open hardware will be able to cater to more people in times to come.