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Russell Coker: Liberty and Mobile Phones

Posted: May 5, 2012 / in: Linux / No comments

I own two mobile phones at the moment, I use a Samsung Galaxy S running Cyanogenmod [1] (Android 2.3.7) for most things, and I have a Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 running Android 2.1 that I use for taking photos, some occasional Wifi web browsing, and using some applications.

Comparing Android Hardware

The hardware for the Xperia X10 is better than that of the Galaxy S in many ways. It has a slightly higher resolution (480*854 vs 480*800), a significantly better camera (8.1MP with a “flash” vs 5MP without), and a status LED which I find really handy (although some people don’t care about it).

The only benefit of the Galaxy S hardware is that it has 16G of internal storage (of which about 2G can be used for applications) and 512M of RAM while the Xperia X10 has 1G of internal storage and 384M of RAM. These are significant issues, I have had applications run out of RAM on the Xperia X10 and I have been forced to uninstall applications to make space.

Overall I consider the Xperia X10 to be a significantly better piece of hardware as I am willing to trade off some RAM and internal storage to get a better resolution screen and a better camera. The problem is that Sony Ericsson have locked down their phones as much as possible and they don’t even give users the option of making a useful backup – they inspired my post about 5 principles of backups [2].

The fact that the Galaxy S allows installing CyanogenMod which then gives me the liberty to do whatever I want with my phone is a massive feature. It outweighs the hardware benefits of the Sony Ericsson phones over Samsung phones prior to the Galaxy Nexus and Galaxy Note.

For an individual user the ability to control their own hardware is a feature. Such an ability wouldn’t be much use if there wasn’t a community of software developers, so if you buy an Android phone that isn’t supported by CyanogenMod or another free Android distribution then whether it is locked probably won’t matter to you. But for any popular Android phone that’s sold on the mass market it seems that if it’s not locked then it will get a binary distribution of Android in a reasonable amount of time.

Comparing with Apple

It seems that Apple is the benchmark for non-free computing at the moment. The iPhone is locked down and Apple takes steps to re-lock phones that can be rooted – as opposed to the Android vendors who ship phones and then don’t bother to update the firmware for any reason. The Apple app market is more expensive and difficult to enter and if an app isn’t in the market then you have to pay if you want to install it on a small number of development/test phones. This compares to Android where the Google market is cheaper and easier to enter and anyone can distribute an app outside the market and have people use it.

But for an individual this doesn’t necessarily cause any problems. I have friends and clients who use iPhones and are very happy with them. In terms of software development it’s a real benefit to have a large number of systems running the same software. As Apple seems to have higher margins and larger volume than any other phone vendor as well as shipping only one phone at any time (compared to every other phone vendor which seems to ship at least 3 different products for different use cases) they are in a much better economic position to get the software development right. As far as I can tell the hardware and software of the iPhone is of very high quality. The iPad (which has a similar market position) is also a quality product. The fact that the Apple app market is more difficult to enter (both in terms of Apple liking the application and the cost of entry) also has it’s advantages, I get the impression that the general quality of iPhone apps is quite high as opposed to Android where there are a lot of low quality apps and many more fraudulent apps than there should be.

The lack of choice in Apple hardware (one phone and one tablet) is a disadvantage for the user. There is no option for a phone with a slide-out keyboard, a large screen (for the elderly and people with fat fingers), or any of the other features that some Android phones have. The lack of a range of sizes for the iPad is also a disadvantage. But it seems that Apple has produced hardware that is good enough for most users so there aren’t many complaints about a lack of choice.

It seems to me that the biggest disadvantage of the closed Apple ecosystem is for society in general. Anyone who wants to write a mobile app to do something which might be considered controversial would probably think twice about whether to develop for the iPhone/iPad as Apple could remove the app at a whim which would waste all the software development work that was invested in writing the app. Google seem to have much less interest in removing apps from their store and if they do remove an app then with some inconvenience it can be distributed on the web without involving them – so the work won’t be wasted.

How Much Freedom Should a Vendor Provide?

The Apple approach of locking everything down is clearly working for them at the moment. The Samsung approach of taking the Google prescribed code and allowing users to replace it is good for the users and works well. The Sony Ericsson approach of taking the Google code, adding some proprietary code, and then locking the phone down is bad for the users and I think it will be bad for Sony Ericsson. People are more likely to tell others about negative experiences and negative reviews are more likely to be noticed than positive reviews. So while many people are reasonably happy with Sony Ericsson products (until they find themselves unable to restore from a backup) it’s still not a good situation for Sony Ericsson marketing.

It seems that there are benefits to hardware vendors for being really open and for locking their users in properly. But being somewhat open isn’t a good choice, particularly for a vendor that ships poor quality proprietary apps such as the Sony Ericsson ones.

In terms of application distribution Google isn’t as nice as they appear. The Skyhook case revealed that Google will do whatever it takes to prevent apps that compete with Google apps from being installed by default [3]. Google is also trying to make money from DRM sales via Youtube which it denies to rooted phones [4]. Again it seems to me that the best options here are being more open than Google is and being as closed as Apple. Google might gain some useful benefits from applying DRM (even though everyone with technical knowledge knows that it doesn’t work) but the Skyhook shenanigans have got to be costing Google more than it’s worth.

How to make Android devices more Free

The F-droid market is an alternative to the Google App market which only has free software [5]. On it’s web site there are links to download the source for the applications, including the source and binaries for old versions. In the Google App market if an upgrade breaks your system then you just lose, with F-droid you can revert to the old version.

A self-hosted OwnCloud installation for a private or semi-private cloud [6] can be used as an alternative to the Google Music store as well as for hosting any other data that you want to store online.

The Open Street Map for Android (Osmand) project provides an alternative to the Google Map service [7]. Osmand allows you to download all the vector data for the regions you will ever visit so it can run without Internet access. But it doesn’t have the ability to search for businesses and the search for an address functionality is clunky and doesn’t accept plain text, which among other things precludes pasting data that’s copied from email or SMS. While Osmand provides some important features that Google Maps will probably never provide, it doesn’t provide some of the most used features of Google Maps so uninstalling Google Maps isn’t a good option at the moment.

The K9mail project provides a nice IMAP client for Android [8]. Use K9 with a mail server that you run and you won’t need to use Gmail.

There are alternatives to all the Google applications. It seems that apart from the lack of commercial data and search ability in Osmand an Android device that is used for many serious purposes wouldn’t lack much if it had no Google apps.

Google seems to be going too far in controlling Android. Escaping from their control and helping others to do the same seems to be good for society and good for the users who don’t need apps which are only available in proprietary form.

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