Android proves users want free software (as in GPL)

At some point I started to see people complaining that Google says Android is open, but it is not. Since this is not true, I thought it was some kind of FUD, but I didn’t know where it came from. It could started in a variety of places or communities, but Apple is certainly one of them (Note: stop reading if you are in a place where you can not laugh):

Google loves to characterize Android as “open,” and iOS and iPhone as “closed”. We find this a bit disingenuous, and clouding the real difference between our two approaches. The first thing most of us think about when we hear the word “open” is Windows, which is available on a variety of devices. Unlike Windows, however, where most PCs have the same user interface and run the same apps, Android is very fragmented.Job’s transcript from MacWorld (bold is mine)

First of all I would like to tell you why Android is open. Android is open because it is released under Apache v.2 License (and under GPL for Kernel patches, I think). As you know, Apache License is a free software and open source license, recognised by Open Source Initiative and Free Software Foundation, but it is not a copyleft license, because it allows that the software can be used to develop proprietary software.

You can get Android, run it, change it and even fork it, if you want.

Vocabulary is a funny thing. Different people can say the same word meaning different things. Let me give some examples on the word “open”:

  • Some time ago, Alcides was saying that he did not considered GPL license free and open, because you have to stick with the license if you want to distribute modified versions of the software. So, for Alcides, open means that you can do everything with the software, even to close it.
  • As you can see above, Steve Jobs thinks that open is something like Windows. For him, open means that the software runs on a variety of devices (!)
  • For Fred, open means “not feeling locked to a given vendor when using a handset” (you can go to Fred’s blog to read his post about this).

Scott Gilbertson wrote an article for Wired saying:

In the software world, “open” can be defined around three core traits: a license that insures the code can be modified, reused and distributed; a community development approach; and, most importantly, assurance the user has total freedom over the device and software. (bold is mine)
The problem with this definition is that it is not true: if “open” was defined in the software world by the “assurance the user to have total freedom over the device and software”, GNU/Linux would not be open, because most of the devices where we run Linux are not open and we do not have total freedom over them. You can ask any Linux developer about the problems when dealing with computers hardware. And this does not make GNU/Linux “less open” or closed. In the same way, it doesn’t make Android “less open” or closed.
What Gilbertson is giving is his own personal definition of “open”, in the same way the examples I gave you above.
But Gilbertson goes even far than that: he cites Bruce Perens saying
The fact that you can check something out and compile it doesn’t mean you have the right to use it,
What Gilbertson fails to explain is that in Android case you *have* that right. The license gives you that right.
In the “Is Android open?” discussion, you can see different groups of people:
  • part of this discussion is FUD – these people know about free software, they know about open source and the different licenses, but still they spread the idea that Android is not really open, because they don’t like Android or they fear it (during a conference call with analysts, Steve Jobs’ most used words were think android);
  • another part of this discussion is lack of knowledge – these people don’t know about free software or the different open source licenses. These are that kind of people who think that free software is free as in free beer;
  • and another part, although writing Android, is not really discussing Android. What they are really discussing is if licenses like Apache should be considered open, but as I’ve pointed out Apache v.2 is approved by OSI and FSF.
By saying that Android is open, Google is not defining “open” as some personal definition, which would be ridiculous, since I just show you that different people have different personal definitions of that word. Google is defining “open” as in software world: open source licensing.
Let me repeat this: You can get Android, run it, change it and even fork it, if you want. And you have the right to do it.
When you buy an Android phone you’re not really getting Android, you are getting a modified version of Android that can have proprietary software in it. that’s the difference.
The great thing about this discussion is that people are asking for free software as in GPL. An Apache v.2 is not enough. And more than that, people are crying for open hardware too. And it’s really great to see so many people asking for open software and open hardware. Something that is defended almost only by Linux users.

Of course, this discussion has a funny side too. To see people, who defended proprietary software and who attacked Richard Stallman, asking now for the same thing Stallman has been asking for years😀

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