Friday, October 24, 2008

Ex OpenMoko Lead System Architect takes on Android's lack of openness

Two days ago I centered my frustration about the lack of openness in mobile handsets with Google's new operating system, like the T-Mobile G1, in the headline "WARNING: Android devices are NOT open". But now open source wizzard Harald Welte, former Lead System Architect for OpenMoko, explains Android's shortcomings much better in his latest blog post:
To me, those things are not a big surprise. As soon as you try to get in bed with the big operators, they will require this level of control. Android is not set out to be a truly open source mobile phone platform, but it's set out to be a sandbox environment for applications.

And even with all the android code out there, I bet almost (if not all) actual devices shipping with Android and manufactured by the big handset makers will have some kind of DRM scheme for the actual code: A bootloader that verifies that you did not modify the kernel, a kernel that ensures you do not run your own native applications.
He sees Android as little more than some sandbox virtual machine environment where people can write UI apps for. Nothing that gets him excited. "I want a openness where I can touch and twist the bootloader, kernel, drivers, system-level software - and among other things, UI applications", he says. And I want that too.

To Harald most Linux handsets don't deserve their name because all the freedoms of Linux software are stripped. Linux on cell phones is "definitely not to any benefit of the user" - but only to handset maker, who can skip a pretty expensive Windows Mobile licensing fee. That brave new world makes him sick.

I guess only on Nokia Internet Tablets the Android can be as open as we whish. It's time that someone takes the source code an ports Android for them, preferably without Google spyware, as we know it from Iron, the googlefree fork version of the Chrome browser. Until now Android only runs in a virtual machine on Nokia Internet Tablets.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

WARNING: Android devices are NOT open

The world is excited about Google's new operating system for mobile phones. But I am not such a big fan anymore since I talked to Rich Miner, Head of Mobile Platforms at Google. We met yesterday in Munich at the Communication World 2008 where he presented the Android. The system is not as open as I hoped. People will need to jailbreak and unlock their Android smartphones, like iPhones, if they want true freedom and make the most of them.

Of course the Android source code is free and you can develop everything based on it. But then? You don't get your new OS on that Android phone!

If you want, you can redesign the entire Android operating system and eliminate every Google function, even the kill switch for unwanted software. Our German readers at are worried about their privacy, many refuse to connect to Google's servers with their location aware Android phones. But the first device on the market, T-Mobile G1, does only work with a Google account. "You must sign in to your existing GMail account before you can do ANYTHING with the phone", writes jkOnTheRun. Big brother could be watching you! Therefore it would be preferable to have the choice to get an Android phone that's free of Google. I want my own GPhone, not a Googlephone but a Goebelphone!

Rich Miner shows his T-Mobile G1 at Communication World 2008 in Munich

"That's perfectly possible", Rich Miner told me. You can do whatever you want with the source code. "But will I be able to install my own Android version on a T-Mobile G1?", I asked. "No that's not possible", he answered. "You would have to change the ROM." People cannot change the Linux kernels of the Android devices which went on sale today. They can install every additional program, but Google controls the core system on the ROM. That's against the Linux philosophy and a big difference to the other open Linux device, Openmoko. As a Linux user I am used to bake my own kernels. I remove kernel functions that I don't need to make my computer faster. Or I add new features, such as virtualization, to the kernel.

With Android devices that's not possible. Only a handful of developer devices can do that, but they are not for sale to end users. So if you want to run your own fork of the Android operating system on a cell phone, you have to get a rare developer device or become a handset producer like Motorola or HTC. That sucks! Also: The marvellous G1 is locked to T-Mobile's network in the US and doesn't work with German SIM cards.

My take: It won't take long until we see a flourishing jailbreak and unlock scene, as we already know it from the iPhone. The Android system is not really open before I can bake my own kernel for the device and use it on every network. I asked Rich Miner what Google thinks about jailbreaking the G1 and he just returned: "Why would you want to do that if you can install every software?" Unfortunately I didn't find a good answer in this moment. But I should have said something like: Because it's human to reshape devices for unintended use. It's part of our DNA since the first monkey realized that fruits are not only food, but can make a good booze if you let them mature a little longer.

Mike Jennings presents the Android SDK at OSiM World in Berlin

Maybe Google doesn't even know what's coming their way, sometimes they are surprised at what people do with Android. That's what I learnt from my interview with Mike Jennings, Google's Android Developer Advocate, on September 17th at OSiM World in Berlin. He was astonished when I told him that I was running Android on my Nokia Internet Tablet since Juli. "That's not possible because the source code is still not free", he said. But yet there was an idiot-proof installer available on the internet.