CyanogenMod user

Enough is enough. I got sufficiently annoyed by Samsung Android to install an unofficial port of CyanogenMod (no better alternative) on my phone. What are the first impressions?

The system installed without problems and has been running reasonably well. The user restrictions are gone: I got rid of many useless proprietary applications wasting the very limited space on the internal storage, some things got customizable and root access is available when needed. There is improved functionality: I especially like profiles and swype on the Google keyboard works much better than on the Samsung one. Software freedom was improved by removing some pieces of unwanted proprietary software and replacing some components of unknown origin and license. While I miss a few things from the original Samsung system, I absolutely don’t regret abandoning it and have no intention to return to it unless I experience some serious problem.

As for stability, neither of the systems is perfect. Samsung system suffered from random reboots and other random stability problems. CyanogenMod has problems to start on my phone, suffering from boot loops, but once it’s completely up and running it seems to be stable (so far). Time will tell but it seems the Samsung official preinstalled system isn’t more stable than an experimental unofficial port of an alternative ROM.

Samsung produces user friendly hardware: replaceable battery, SD card slot, standard SIM size, a lot of different models for different needs, available bootloader. Too bad they cripple it with their proprietary software. I’d probably recommend my friend buying a Samsung phone, but only one of the models for which one’s favorite alternative system (e.g. Replicant, OmniROM or CyanogenMod) is officially available.

Absurdity of patents

I’ve been thinking about patents a bit recently. I thought about alien invasion, from a far world with a strict patent system. What would the aliens tell us?

“We can see you have been using a lot of our patented inventions, from the wheel to the rocket science, without paying us licensing fees. These are clear patent infringements, we have got all the inventions patented for at least million years. We protect our intellectual property properly, so our patents never expire and we are here to get indemnified. You have to pay us for your unlicensed use of our patented inventions during the whole human existence. We respect you have not read all the patent applications at the VPO (Vogon Patent Office) so we give you a chance to indemnify us just by passing all your possessions and all the mineral resources of the Earth and the Solar System to us. Do not try to excuse you did not know at all: You apply similar laws and your copyright expiration period gets lengthened all the time in order to prevent any further copyright expiration so you are well aware how important intellectual property protection is. And we will take what belongs to us due to your unscrupulous use of our intellectual properties in any case. We are aware you shall not survive after you pass everything you have to us. Since we are from a civilized society we won’t let you suffer and make an act of humanity: We are going to destroy you right now (and then we take everything).”

I’m surprised I haven’t seen such a story so far but I don’t think it’s original. It’s likely it was used as an illustration of the patent system absurdity several times. Well, independent thinking can lead to similar results. I like what Kent Pitman once wrote: “I think any law that restricts independent use of brainpower is suspect.”

EFF supporter

The Electronic Frontier Foundation does a lot of good for online and software freedom so I decided to donate to it. If you care about software freedom (and you should care about it today if you care about freedom generally), please consider contributing to organizations which defend it. One of the most important ones besides the Electronic Frontier Foundation are the Free Software Foundation and the Software Freedom Law Center.

BTW, this winter’s Free Software Foundation fundraising campaign just starts.

CyanogenMod removed from Google Play Store

CyanogenMod installer application was removed from Google Play Store on Google’s request. Not much issue itself as it can be installed from elsewhere and without using the proprietary Play Store application. The more interesting part is the reasoning about the issue.

According to Google the installer encourages users to void their warranty and thus is in violation of the terms of service. This seems fair at the first glance but we must ask Google some questions about its stock Android systems: Why can’t we install security updates on your Android without voiding the warranty? Why can’t we mount USB devices on your Android without voiding the warranty? Why can’t we remove proprietary applications from your Android without voiding the warranty? Why can’t we install applications on the SD card on your Android without voiding the warranty? Why can’t we install another operating system on our devices running your Android without voiding the warranty?

Even more interesting are users’ comments. Some people claim that voiding the warranty makes sense as replacing the stock Android is indeed dangerous for various reasons: The device may be destroyed by overheating; LED control can be destroyed by incorrect use; the device may be bricked by reflashing due to an undocumented feature of the device. Compare this with PCs: How many of them have you damaged or destroyed by installing another operating system on them? Clearly there is something very wrong with the stock Android devices and with all those arguments.

Given the questions above, people have a lot of valid reasons to install less restrictive Android systems, such as Replicant, CyanogenMod or even the closed Chinese distribution (can you believe it’s not under the control of Chinese army?), on their devices. The primary question is: Why are the Android devices designed to void the warranty in case the original software gets replaced? The answer is clear: Google applies invasive user and vendor lock-in. The most sad fact is that some users accept and support it.

Well, one can argue user lock-in is in the best interest of Google business: We are the products and restricting us makes us better products, to be sold for a better price. We don’t pay for Android development, Google customers do. Unfortunately, this is the perverted fact of todays economy. But Google at one time used the motto “don’t be evil”. Google had to be nice to its users when it needed to acquire them; as a monopolist today it just exploits them. Google is an evil company these days (don’t be confused: Apple, Microsoft, Samsung and others are no better): It applies aggressive user (and vendor) lock-in, it replaces its previously free software with proprietary software, and it supports DRM on the Web and in W3C standards.

Google and other such companies deserve boycott to force them to change their behavior but that can be hardly effective nowadays. So what can we do? I suggest fighting for consumer rights, using replacements of proprietary software and services, developing free software including distributed free software services, donating to organizations such as Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation or Software Freedom Law Center, and educating the users.

Smartphone user

I can no longer ignore smartphones, for various reasons. So I bought one, an Android based Samsung phone.

One of the reasons I’ve avoided smartphones so far is they run on non-free software. While the underlying operating system is mostly free, phone vendors are active in putting special restrictions on it.

Samsung installs its own proprietary Android based system on the phone. The user is denied root access, he may not remove preinstalled applications and installation of another operating system voids the warranty. Compared to PCs, this is much more restrictive than in the worst times of Microsoft monopoly.

Despite the user is prevented from fixing the operating system (under the penalty of voiding the warranty), Samsung doesn’t provide even proper security support — there is no update available for the more than a half year old operating system build. Who could believe there are no known security bugs in it (if nothing else then considering the fact the system can be rooted)? So the user has to decide between giving up on proper software support or giving up on the hardware warranty. Where are the consumer rights?

To be fair, Samsung’s approach to the customers is still better than by some of its direct competitors. The user is allowed to remove and replace the battery, to use his own memory card (although only for limited purposes), to install any application he likes, even to install another operating system (when accepting the loss of warranty). There is at least one big smartphone vendor who doesn’t permit anything of that and some other vendors don’t permit at least something of that. Poor security support is common among major vendors of proprietary operating systems. My new phone replaces three devices I’ve used so far and provides much more software freedom than any of them. And Samsung offers wide range of products so it’s likely any family member can find a suitable device among them. Unless you’re ready to spend a lot of money and trouble on the aging GTA04, there is hardly much better choice on the market. So buying a Samsung phone is probably a reasonable choice when avoiding the very expensive models (you wouldn’t like to spend a lot of money on a limited warranty product, would you?).

How to improve software freedom on such a device? The first step is to start using applications from F-Droid. Using preinstalled applications or applications from Google Play requires special attention as they typically don’t provide licensing information, they may be dependent on non-free software, they may be modified by spies and the Google Play thing is proprietary itself. There are many free applications satisfying most of my needs available, either on F-Droid or elsewhere. So the primary problem is the operating system. I’ll probably replace it with CyanogenMod once my warranty expires or I start believing the hardware survives it and if my model gets supported. Replicant might be even better if it supports my model, but unless it supports all the important devices in it it won’t contribute to my software freedom (but it may still improve my privacy).

So I’d say the smartphone market is still in poor state but it’s not hopeless. The main obstacles are violations of consumer rights by voiding the warranty on installation of a free operating system, unavailability of free firmware, and limited model support in CyanogenMod and other alternative distributions. Apart from that we have a complete free operating system with a lot of useful free applications. The simplest action we can take is buying smartphones from vendors who put the least restrictions on the users.

20 years of Debian

Debian has celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. IIRC, I’ve installed Debian in 1995 for the first time, version 0.93R5. My very first GNU/Linux distribution was SLS (who knows today what it was?). I switched to Slackware soon and after some time I decided it might be a good idea to try something else once again. Looking at our faculty FTP server I’ve found a distribution called Debian with interesting development model and with package dependencies (missing dependencies were quite a problem with Slackware that time and Debian was the only distribution solving the problem). About a year later I became one of the Debian developers.

I’ve never switched to another distribution again since I installed Debian for the first time and I’ve remained a Debian user (and developer) till today. Although I tried to install and use other Linux distributions during the time I wasn’t fully satisfied with any of them. Even in times when I wasn’t particularly happy with Debian my research led just to the conclusion there was no real alternative.

Although Debian has never been the most popular GNU/Linux distribution it has still been very successful for all the years, having solid user base and grounds. What makes it so successful? I can see three basic reasons.

For first, Debian’s top priority has always been software freedom, since its beginning. Debian’s insistence on being a truly free software distribution makes its development and use unrestricted, independent and cooperative.

For second, Debian has always been a non-commercial distribution directed only by its developers. Its development approach “users for users” makes it free from big commercial pressures, bureaucratic constraints or similar destructive problems. The development is based on democratic decision processes and efforts to reach consensus rather than making simple decisions dictating what to do. This is not always easy and quiet but it contributes to long-term success. Debian has also been successful in self-organizing and managing its growth, which isn’t easy for a group of more than thousand less or more regular voluntary contributors. Commercial activities are left to Debian derivatives, which is a good thing.

For third, Debian prefers stability over feature creep or release rush. I can confirm it’s sometimes annoying but in the final result it makes the life of users much easier. There is a choice between stable releases and testing, unstable and experimental continuous branches. Many other distributions, despite being smaller, are unable to provide equivalents to Debian stable (whether they offer something named this way or not), sometimes being even less stable than Debian unstable.

In my view Debian excellently demonstrates the strength of free software. It’s a unique phenomenon, being the only large, stable, independent and completely free software distribution with sustainable development. It perfectly complements the great and successful free software projects such as Linux, GNU and others. It also serves as a basis of many other GNU/Linux distributions of various kinds derived from it. Let’s wish to Debian the best for its next years.