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22 September 2011, 09:47

Stallman calls Android non-free

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Android icon For Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Android is not free software. In an article in The Guardian, the Free Software pioneer argues that the crucial question is how far Android respects users' freedom and allows them to control their systems.

Stallman said that Android's GPL-licensed Linux kernel already contains non-free firmware and that other parts of the Android system, which were developed by Google, also contain proprietary software. Although Google released the sources of Android versions 1 and 2 as free software under the Apache 2 license, this code isn't enough to operate a device, he added.

Apart from the Linux kernel, the source code for Android 3.0 and 3.1 hasn't been released by Google. This is legally acceptable as, unlike the GPL, the Apache license doesn't stipulate that the source code must be released; however, Stallman raised concerns that Google might intend to turn Android into a fully proprietary system.

"The point of free software is that users have control of their computing", he said. Stallman explained that on most Android devices, the firmware can control essential device functions without the user's knowledge – sometimes to the extent that it can override the user's installed software. "Some device models are designed to stop users from installing and using modified software", he said.

Stallman summarised by saying that Android devices are a major step towards free smartphones that are fully controlled by their users, but that there is a long way to go yet: "Even though the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones, they cannot be said to respect your freedom."

Stallman's position was criticised by open source researchers such as Carlo Daffara. In his blog, he characterised Stallman's argument as spreading FUD, noting that Google has committed to releasing the source code of the next major release of Android, that there are no "non-free" libraries in the Android Open Source Project and, finally, that many of Stallman's criticisms of Android apply equally to Linux.


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