How free is the Ubuntu phone?

James Tait james.tait at
Mon Feb 16 14:06:27 UTC 2015

Hash: SHA1

Thanks, Nico, for the comprehensive write-up. Although I work for
Canonical (full disclosure - my comments are my own), I work on the
server side, so unfortunately I'm not that familiar with the specifics
of the device. What you've written mostly looks right to me, but I
could forward Paul's questions on to someone who works more closely
with the hardware if that would be of interest.

On 13/02/15 07:20, Nico Rikken wrote:
> The Bq phone is based on a phone being shipped with Android, so to 
> answer you questions (please correct me if I'm wrong): - No open
> bootloader (although it is probably not locked) - No modem
> separation as they mostly come intergrated (please look into the
> GTA04 effort [4] for this) - Non-free drivers are needed in the
> lowest layer

This all looks right to me. My understanding is that the device boots
into Ubuntu, and then starts a minimal AOSP environment in an LXC [0]
to get the device support, and the two communicate over a UNIX socket
- - at least for the Nexus 4 reference device. Of course, this means
that much of the core OS on the device is exactly what you'd have on
your Ubuntu desktop, though there are obviously storage constraints on
a mobile device, so it has been slimmed down.

> - The Ubuntu-store (yet to be officially launched) for the phone
> would allow non-free programs to be installed, but I guess that is
> up to the user.

There *is* an official store on the device itself, accessible via the
Store Scope. There isn't an official web store yet, but there is an
unofficial one [1] that has been put together by an interested hacker
- - click the About link for the Github repo - based on the API
documentation [2] and feedback requests; there is also a snippet [3]
put together a while ago by another hacker before we added CORS
support; and the WebDM web-based package manager for Ubuntu Core also
uses the same store (Snappy packages live alongside Click packages in
the store).

Touch apps are packaged as Click Packages and, yes, we do allow
non-free packages into the store. All packages must specify their
license when they are uploaded, so it is possible to search for
packages released under a specific license (e.g. enter the search
string `license:"GNU GPL v3"` in the Store Search bar).

> * I'm not able to answer whether or not non-free code is shipped
> apart from the board-support-package. Considering Ubuntu's practice
> in general, I would assume they favour free, but would eventually
> choose based on usability or performance.

To my knowledge, there are some vendor-specific parts shipped with the
device that aren't (currently) free software - I think these are
limited to two or three scopes and integration with HERE maps. The
Store Scope is GPLv3 [4], so you could point your device at your own
Store (similar to FDroid, but without the need for a separate client).
And St├ęphane Graber has written up details [5] of setting up your own
system image server, to provide OTA updates.

So we're still not yet shipping a totally free phone, but I think
we're closer than Android.



- -- 
- ---------------------------------------+--------------------------------
James Tait, BSc                        |    xmpp:jayteeuk at
Programmer and Free Software advocate  |        Tel: +44 (0)870 490 2407
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