Strategy and serendipity

Paul Boddie paul at
Fri Jun 14 15:39:18 UTC 2019

On Friday 10. May 2019 10.11.40 Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> Am Mittwoch 08 Mai 2019 14:41:59 schrieb Carsten Agger:
> >
> > As for mobile devices, we're not there *at all*. It's definitely not
> > realistically feasible for everybody to acquire devices with a free OS
> > and run only free apps.
> Sure everybody could (in principle). It could be easier, but where to start?
> You can buy mobile phones, desktop and notebook computers that only come
> with Free Software (maybe make a concession for drivers).

Right now, it is just not feasible (if not completely impossible) to go and 
buy a mobile phone running only Free Software, even if one tolerates things 
like proprietary firmware running on various parts of the hardware. Niche 
purchasing options (as mentioned below and previously) only make this 
assertion slightly less true.

Even if there is some Android-based phone out there that can actually be 
purchased and really does run only Free Software, it is probably not feasible 
(or even technically possible) for the customer to verify the status of the 
software and/or to deploy a clean build of the software that does originate 
from genuine Free Software sources.

In my survey of currently available devices that I found myself doing because 
I actually needed a new phone, I found myself entering the labyrinth that many 
others have probably encountered before, needing to consider issues like 
whether source code is conveniently obtained, what steps need to be taken to 
unlock the bootloader, whether the manufacturers are awkward about such 
things, what the different operating system distributions support. And so on.

In the end, even dedicated Free Software advocates are likely to just give up, 
buy something, and use the device subject to whatever terms and conditions are 
imposed on them just by powering it on. So, too bad that everyone has to agree 
to Google's terms - whatever they are, given that just viewing them requires 
the user to enable data and let the device have its way with the network - 
just to have a functioning mobile phone. And, of course, the device 
manufacturer also has some additional terms and conditions that they would 
like you to agree to.

If all of this isn't some kind of defeat for Free Software, then I don't know 
what is. That said, there are evidently sections of the Free Software 
community who live their lives on Facebook and Twitter, so what do I know?

> > That's part of the point Paul raised: We don't just need awareness about
> > software freedom, we need actual software for people to use.
> Agreed, the question is: How to get there?

So the following reminded me about this discussion:

"The FSFE urges users to use Free Software operating systems and applications 
on their computing devices. With proprietary software, they are on the 
receiving end only and vendors may deny them access to crucial security 
updates if the vendor or a government changes its strategy. Free Software 
enables control of technology, and the more important that technology becomes 
in our daily lives, the more relevant Free Software becomes for users. For 
Android, the FSFE helps users to regain more control with its Free Your 
Android initiative."

Well, good luck with that, FSFE! Free Your Android is largely a matter of 
closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. Regaining more control, as 
opposed to actually having control, is as good as it gets.

If it were possible to do what people used to do (and maybe still do) with 
other forms of computers, then you could power up a phone and boot straight 
into a Free Software installer, completely ignoring the preloaded proprietary 
software. But even if this were possible with a phone, the lack of appropriate 
Free Software support makes this a non-starter.

Even better would be the possibility of getting a phone with completely Free 
Software on it, but those old/refurbished Samsung models seem to be the only 
option. That isn't a sustainable solution, as I may have explained already.

There are a handful of devices that may ultimately make it to market that 
supposedly run Free Software. Even ignoring the unfavourable pricing of most 
of these, I have relatively little confidence in very many of them offering a 
convincing final product: there is still far too much "shopping around" by 
Free Software initiatives that fancy the idea that their software will "power" 
a Free Software phone.

Maybe the role of the FSFE is to go beyond advocacy and help knock some 
stubborn heads together, to eliminate people's parochial and needlessly 
competitive attitudes, to actually persuade people to commit to realising an 
actual vision in a genuinely serious way, perhaps to secure resources to allow 
this to happen. Urging people to use Free Software products that don't exist 
just won't do the job.

Because it is already a defeat that twenty years after installing a Free 
Software distribution on some general-purpose hardware and throwing 
proprietary software overboard, I find myself confronted with EULAs and other 
such nonsense on a new purchase, knowing that this was as close to the best I 
could achieve in the situation I was in.


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