Free and open source software (F/OSS, FOSS) or free/libre/open source software (FLOSS) is software that is both free software and open source. It is liberally licensed to grant users the right to use, copy, study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code This approach has gained both momentum and acceptance as the potential benefitshave been increasingly recognized by both individuals and corporations.

In the context of free and open-source software, free refers to the freedom to copy and re-use the software, rather than to the price of the software. The Free Software Foundation, an organization that advocates the free software model, suggests that, to understand the concept, one should “think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer”.

FOSS is an inclusive term that covers both free software and open source software, which despite describing similar development models, have differing cultures and philosophiesFree software focuses on the fundamental freedoms it gives to users, whereas open source software focuses on the perceived strengths of its peer-to-peer development model.FOSS is a term that can be used without particular bias towards either political approach.


Free and open source software in mobile devices

  1. Intro
  2. What are the problems?
  3. SIM locks and subsidised business models
  4. Digital Rights Management
  5. Intellectual Property Rights
  6. Changing Times
  7. Fear of fragmentation
  8. Opening the OS
  9. Happily ever after…
  10. Further reading

A staple element in the advertising of portable computers such as smart phones, tablets and netbooks is the concept of freedom; freedom from wires, monitors and offices – the freedom to read your email, plan your calendar and snap a photo wherever you are on a device that slips into your handbag or pocket. It’s not all advertising hype and smiling models emailing each other photos from sunlit cornfields either. As mobile devices progress in functionality and wireless internet access becomes more speedy, widespread and affordable, many everyday computing tasks really are achievable on the road using mobile devices. However, freedom is a complex concept, and where it increases in one respect it can consequentially decrease in others. For example, reporting of criminal trials has made us all familiar with the idea that our everyday movements can be reconstructed in a previously unimaginable way from our mobile phone provider’s records. Global positioning system technology and mapping software in our phones allow us to do an internet search for the nearest available pizza while at the same time telling our search provider exactly where we are at that moment. Increasingly your mobile device is likely to know where you are, what you are scheduled to do next, what music you like, when you get hungry and what you like to eat. Many technology commentators are concerned that the escape from the desk will come at the price of lost privacy and disturbingly well-targeted advertising.

What are the problems?

Free and open source software has been appearing in consumer electronic devices such as digital video recorders, home computer networking equipment and media players since the late 1990s. It has made less convincing progress, however, in the arena of mobile computing and telephony. Why should this be? After all, there are stable and useful free and open source operating systems available – such as uClinux – that have been specifically designed to work well in battery-operated devices with limited system resources.

Dr Ari Jaaksi, then Nokia’s Vice President in charge of software, gave a speech at the Handsets World conference in Berlin back in June 2008. He gave some interesting insights into the mobile phone industry’s attachment to ‘closed vehicles’ – device software which does not incorporate any free or open source software: “We want to educate open-source developers. There are certain business rules [developers] need to obey, such as DRM, IPR, SIM locks and subsidised business models… Why do we need closed vehicles? We do… Some of these things harm the industry but they’re here. These are touchy, emotional issues, but this dialogue is very much needed. As an industry, we plan to use open-source technologies, but we are not yet ready to play by the rules; but this needs to work the other way round too.”

Jaaksi attracted some criticism for these comments, but they do very usefully sketch out the perceived problems with free and open source software as a component in mobile phones. Let’s look at them one by one.

SIM locks and subsidised business models

Since the late 1990s mobile phone ownership worldwide has soared. In large part this is attributable to their increased affordability. Mobile phone technology has been available to consumers since the 1980s, but it was only in the late 1990s that providers began to deploy business models that treated the device itself as a no- or low-cost subsidised throw-in to encourage customers to sign lucrative fixed-term service contracts. The cost to the provider of the phone would be made back on profits made on call-charges, text message fees and line-rental over the lifetime of the contract. Central to this model is the concept of a ‘SIM Lock’, a limitation built into the phone’s system software which prevents it being used in other countries, with different kinds of customer identification cards (SIMs) or with a different network service provider. The ‘SIM Lock’ acts as a technological proxy for the terms of the service contract, making it more difficult to breach them by selling the phone on or switching providers.

Digital Rights Management

As well as selling network connectivity, mobile operators and associated businesses have in the past made significant amounts of money from selling games, ringtones, video clips and music to their customers wirelessly, althought increasingly these are now being sold from online stores associated not with the network provider but the device manufacturer. In some cases the copyright owners of these items only allow their sale if they are technologically protected from unauthorised copying and redistribution. Increasingly mobile devices need to enforce licensing conditions on their users to prevent the ‘piracy’ of these kind of materials if they are to win the approval of the copyright-supported industries.

Intellectual Property Rights

There is an erroneous but widely-held perception in the larger software community that free and open source software licensing is akin to throwing your intellectual property in the dustbin. While this is essentially incorrect, there are some issues in this area that bear closer examination. Mobile phone manufacturers put vast resources into producing robust, speedy and efficient layers of software for actually making and receiving data and calls wirelessly – the so-called ‘GSM Stack’, standing for “Global System for Mobile Communications”. In many countries a high level of reliability in this software is mandated by law – after all a telephone is an essential device for reporting emergencies, and it’s of little use if you can’t ring the fire brigade because it has crashed. Consequently mobile phone manufacturers are extremely protective of their successful implementations of this functionality, patenting innovative processes and litigating vigorously to prevent unlicensed use of this intellectual property. This in turn makes it less likely that manufacturers will be willing to release the source code to their implementation under free or open source licences. Even if the GSM stack (or any other piece of software technology which a manufacturer wishes to keep proprietary) is made available as closed source software, it could conceivably be argued that it is running as part of a free or open source operating system renders it a derivative work of that operating system, and therefore, under certain FOSS licences, may need to have its source code made available. Whether this is actually the case would depend on how the software was implemented and which licence the operating system in question was released under, but in practice the tiny possibility of an enforced source release is so terrifying that many manufacturers have in the past preferred to avoid the perceived issue entirely by having nothing to do with free or open source software (although of course the issue is, in the main, with the so-called ‘copyleft’ licences which mandate use of the same licence on derivative works, and not free and open source software as a whole).

As mobile phones become more complex, however, they are increasingly taking on the role which personal digital assistants previously fulfilled, and consequently the restrictions cited above are becoming more relevant for all mobile devices. These converged devices, generally known as smartphones, have been a relatively small but steadily growing segment of the overall PDA and mobile phone market for many years. To begin with this market was divided in the main between the closed source operating systems Symbian (owned for most of its history by a consortium of mobile manufacturers, and more recently acquired, opened then abandoned by Nokia) and Windows Mobile (owned by Microsoft). Industry analysts have long predicted that – as customers’ requirements escalate, the smartphone with its advanced capabilities will become the mobile device of choice for many more consumers (market research firm Nielsen have predicted that smartphones will represent over 50% of the US mobile phone market by the end of 2011).

Fear of fragmentation

The success of the iPhone – and its operating system iOS – gave emphasis for its competitors to an issue that had been festering for some time. As mentioned above, the smartphone operating system market was – pre-iPhone – largely divided between Symbian and Windows Mobile. This bald statement hides an ugly issue, however. A developer wanting to write a smartphone application might start out naively thinking that they could get away with writing two versions of their code – one for Windows Mobile and one for Symbian. However, they would soon discover that things are not quite that simple. Each operating system runs on many, many different devices, with differing screen sizes, processors and peripheral capabilities. To write an application that even addressed just the majority of smartphone market required testing and debugging on hundreds of differing devices. In contrast Apple offered a single target device with known capabilities. Even with a single figure percentage of the overall mobile phone market, the iPhone represented the largest unified market available to smartphone developers.

On less-than-smart phones the situation was even worse, with every device manufacturer producing their own miniature operating system to drive their phones. Java Mobile Edition (ME) had been introduced in 2000 to create a single development environment for Java-capable phones, but in practice the dream of write-once-run-anywhere had not come true, and J2ME developers were also forced to test on many target devices to create something stable and usable.

How had this situation emerged and persisted? The main driver was the reluctance of phone manufacturers and network providers to allow a single software company to dominate their industry in the way that Microsoft dominates so much of the desktop computer industry. While application compatibility remained a minority problem, it made sense for the device manufacturers and network providers to specify and create a diverse range of devices running different operating systems. It catered to the many and various tastes of their customer base while helping ensure that no individual operating system provider became too powerful. However, faced with Apple’s new device, it became increasingly clear that the ludicrous fragmentation of the rest of the mobile operating system market would be a huge competitive disadvantage. If customers were going to start buying phones based upon which applications they could run, then wooing the mobile application developer would suddenly become a very important component of a device’s success. With mobile application developers flocking to the iPhone due to its unified design (although even iOS is beginning to fragment with the introduction of the larger screen formats in the iPad, iPhone 4 and iPod Touch 4G), many in the industry began to feel that simply choosing to unite behind a competing proprietary operating system would be an unwise move, almost guaranteeing that one or other of them would end up dangerously dominant. How could they have an operating system that unified their devices into an attractive single platform while not handing too much power to any single operating system company?

Opening the OS

It may well be that the industry is coming around to a mature understanding of exactly what free and open source software does and does not do. As it moves into the mainstream there are simply more consultants and lawyers in the community who can advise sensibly on the legal responsibilities involved in the inclusion of open source in a device or operating system. The list of ‘touchy, emotional issues’ that Dr Ari Jaaksi cited back in June 2008 – SIM locks, DRM, subsidised handset provision etc. seem to be well accommodated in the emerging handsets from the new FOSS mobile operating systems. For example most Android phones do not grant the user permission to replace certain software components on the phone. While it may be possible to remove the entire operating system and replace it with a modified version that does grant these permissions, this would likely violate the terms of the user’s contract with their connectivity provider and potentially cripple some of the network-available features that make the phone attractive in the first place.

Open source software such as that used in mobile technology is created by a broad community of people working collaboratively in a public and transparent way. The principles of such Open Development Methods are discussed in Avoiding abandon-ware: getting to grips with the open development method.



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