Open Handset Alliance far from open by GNU standards – by “Bill T”

Like the previous blogger, I too am in love with my Droid. He is a Droid X. His name is Yeste (after the most famous swordmaker in all of Florin), and he runs Verizon/Motorola’s official OTA release of Froyo (Android 2.2) with Motorola’s MotoBlur skin on top of it. Motorola is a proud member of the “Open Handset Alliance” which is a group of 78 tech companies that seek to propagate Google’s open-source mobile operating system, “Android”. Some of its members are wireless distributors seeking wider access to smart phones, others are phone manufacturers looking to decrease some of its costs, others are developers excited about a popular mobile platform with a low bar for entry. All of them are in the business of technological advancements. All of them are in the business of making money. Many of them are competitors.

Google has set a tone of openness not entirely unlike that in GNU’s copyleft standards, but that tone ends at the conveyance of Android. As the leading producers of Android handsets, Motorola and HTC are the most capable of upholding the attitude of openness begun by Google. Motorola and HTC add the custom skins “MotoBlur” and “Sense UI” respectively  to Google’s stock form of Android, a practice Google adamantly defends, and one clearly aligned with GNU’s policy of allowing modification and redistribution (not that GNU’s rules apply to Android).

HTC has been moderately good about maintaining openness when conveying Android. Though they’ve added Sense, it’s possible to turn off most of it’s features and return to stock Android. Users seeking superuser access will still need to “root” their phones in order to load new firmware, but HTC hasn’t done much to prevent that. In fact, it’s become as easy as downloading an app to root HTC’s phones.

Motorola on the other hand, has shown a proclivity towards limitations on this openness. In order to remove MotoBlur, one must root one’s Motorola phone.  While rooting the Droid X and Droid 2 is possible, it is very difficult in comparison to other Android phones due to Motorola’s inclusion of a “Locked Bootloader” which, though it doesn’t “brick” the phone, takes very strong measures to prevent rooting. This ardent anti-circumvention measure would unquestionably violate copyleft standards, if they applied, and as a result, lowers the bar for openness among members of the Open Handset Alliance.

So what accounts for the difference between Motorola and believers in copyleft? Yes, Motorola is in the business of making money, but profit is not something the GPL disdains, indeed it embraces it by clarifying its definition of “free” as regarding freedom (which MotoBlur lacks) rather than price (which Motorola is happy to include). As the leading manufacturer of handsets, it can’t be that Motorola lacks interest in technological progress. Indeed, many consider Motorola’s Droid to be the first real “iPod Killer.”

Perhaps it’s the desire to beat the competition at either of these factors that drives Motorola’s desire to lock things down. While GNU supports gaining from modifications on open software, it doesn’t appear to support competitive enterprising. While GNU supports technological progress, that is not its primary tenant. Motorola’s desire, first, to lead the way rather than to contribute primarily to the customization of the Android platform is what pushes it so far away from the copyleft standard. Motorola doesn’t seem to want us to truly own the software on our phones.

I’m very happy with my MotoBlur-running Droid X, and even when given the warranty-preserving options of downloading MotoBlur-replacing apps like Launcher Pro or Handcent SMS, I’ve stuck with Motorola’s stock apps. I may not be better off for that, but I’m happy with those functions as they are. I don’t really need free tethering or mobile hotspot capabilities. With the ability to tether via Bluetooth to my MacBook Pro which can use its Airport as a hotspot, I’m satisfied. I don’t plan to root any time soon. Having said that, every once in a while I come across a cool app that says “requires root,” and wish that that wasn’t necessary. None of the apps have been worth voiding my warranty or taking the chance that I’ll brick my phone by screwing up the complicated process of circumventing eFuse, nor have they even been worth remembering. But as members of an Open Handset Alliance, perhaps Motorola should still consider democratizing superuser access.

After all, is there any good to the consumer from such a locked-down device?

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