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The upgrade effect

This suggests that upgrading Android is not going to be a big issue – at least for the moment – which brings us onto the second criticism: “inconsistent deployment of core features.”

There's no denying that core features do indeed look very different on the various Android phones available. Indeed, the use of custom skins means that the user interface of Android phones looks very different in some cases. But we have been here before in the world of free software: there are lots of desktops for GNU/Linux, and despite the periodic mutterings that there are *too* many of them, people just choose the one they want. And with time, leaders emerge, and most of the development work occurs on those platforms, which means you end up with the best of both worlds: choice and concentration of resources. So, once again, nothing really to worry about there in terms of so-called fragmentation.

A far bigger problem is that many of these Android skins are proprietary, as are practically all Android applications. This is a serious threat, in my view, because we risk being so dazzled by the shiny toys that Android manufacturers are unveiling that we fail to notice the fact that, although they may be built on a Linux foundation, practically everything that matters to the user is closed source.

Here's how Bradley Kuhn, Technology Director at the Software Freedom Law Center, puts it in an extremely interesting essay entitled “The State of Free Software in Mobile Devices”:

Whether the software is from a hardware maker trying something new to sell their hardware [Nokia], or an advertising salesman who wants some influence over an operating system choice to improve ad delivery [Google], the software freedom community cannot assume that the stewards of these codebases have the interests of the user community at heart. Indeed, the interests between these disparate groups will only occasionally be aligned. Community-oriented forks, as has begun in the Maemo community with Mer, must also begin in the Android/Linux space too. We are slowly trying with the Replicant project, founded by myself and my colleague Aaron Williamson.

He also makes a good point about replacing those proprietary apps:

Any operating system, even for a mobile device, needs many applications to be useful. Google experience applications for Android/Linux are merely the tip of the iceberg in the plethora of proprietary applications that will be available for MeeGo and Android/Linux platforms. For F/LOSS developers who don't have a talent for low-level device libraries and operating system software, these applications represent a straightforward contribution towards mobile software freedom. On this point, we can take a page from Free Software history. From the early 1990s onward, fully free GNU/Linux systems succeeded as viable desktop and server systems because disparate groups of developers focused simultaneously on both operating systems and application software. We need that simultaneous diversity of improvement to actually compete with the fully proprietary alternatives, and to ensure that the "mostly F/LOSS" systems of today are not the "barely F/LOSS" systems of tomorrow.

We tend to forget – I certainly had forgotten – just how few applications there were for GNU/Linux in the early days. When I wrote Rebel Code in 2000, practically the only free application for “ordinary” users I could discuss was the GIMP. As Kuhn puts it:

Mobile telephone systems are not all that different from 1992-era GNU/Linux systems. The basics are currently available as Free, Libre, and Open Source Software (F/LOSS). If you need only the bare minimum of functionality, you can, by picking the right phone hardware, run an almost completely F/LOSS operating system and application set. Yet, we have so far to go.

So concerns about fragmentation, of whatever kind, really miss the point: that the smartphone free software revolution has barely started – and so is bound to have a few early problems that need ironing out. More importantly, even though it's barely started *already* Android/Linux is being seen as the mostly likely victor in this space. However, Apple's legal action against HTC, the leading manufacturer of Android handsets, is a useful reminder why, alongside the commercial implementations, we desperately need a free Android stack as well.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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