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.