In association with heise online

14 October 2011, 16:55

Is Android's bane a boon for Free Software?

by Glyn Moody

A few weeks ago, I needed to buy a new mobile phone. Well, I didn't really need to, of course, but my contract was coming up for renewal, and so this provided me with a semi-legitimate reason to acquire a shiny new toy to play with.

Previously, I'd been using the HTC Hero, and was generally pleased with it. The hardware was well made, and just the right size to slip into a pocket. But then this happened:

Microsoft Corp. and HTC Corp. have signed a patent agreement that provides broad coverage under Microsoft’s patent portfolio for HTC’s mobile phones running the Android mobile platform. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties from HTC.

This was a crucially important propaganda win for Microsoft, as Steve Ballmer's crowing a few months later made clear:

Android has a patent fee. It's not like Android's free. You do have to license patents. HTC's signed a license with us and you're going to see license fees clearly for Android as well as for Windows.

So, after HTC's treachery, it was clear I wasn't going to buy another mobile from them – not least because some of my money would be going straight into Microsoft's coffers, and thus helping to fund further FUD against Android and Linux.

Fortunately, Samsung had come out with the Galaxy S II a few months ago, and it was receiving rave reviews. Everyone seemed to agree: it was incredibly speedy, with a huge, bright screen, and yet improbably thin. Reader, I married bought it.

For the first week or so, I was really delighted with my choice. I found that for certain tasks – for example scanning hundreds of blog posts in my RSS stream – it was actually faster and easier to use the Galaxy S II than to read them on a desktop system. And then Samsung pulled an HTC:

Microsoft announced today that it has signed a definitive agreement with Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., to cross-license the patent portfolios of both companies, providing broad coverage for each company’s products. Under the terms of the agreement, Microsoft will receive royalties for Samsung’s mobile phones and tablets running the Android mobile platform.

It was déj  vu all over again.

Samsung's defection was just the latest in a growing list of companies that have decided that discretion is the better part of valour and signed up for Microsoft's, er, protection. The other prong of the attack on Android is being led by Oracle: even though that case seems to be getting smaller and more circumscribed by the day, it's still a digital sword of Damocles hanging over the code.

All-in-all, then, Google's "open" Android – which even Google has been making less open recently – has become rather more problematic over the last year. That's the bad news for free software; but it could also turn out to be good news.

As Android began its remarkably rapid ascent to become the world's leading smartphone operating system (depending on how and where you measure it), its "almost open" code was widely accepted as good enough, given that what we had before so was so much worse. The idea that a Linux-based offering could not only be taken seriously by ordinary users, but might actually beat everything else – even the near-mythic iPhone – seemed so extraordinary that we were willing to overlook those proprietary blobs floating around in the sea of otherwise free code.

But as Android woes have mounted, and the spectre of a Microsoft tax being applied more and more widely has loomed ever larger, there is an interesting possibility: that people will start to think more seriously about creating truly free mobile phone stacks. There are already a number of attempts out there, in various stages of completion.

Next: Open source alternatives

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