Musings on Android, OpenMoko and Linux on phones

Mikko Rauhala mjrauhal at
Thu Mar 5 13:50:19 CET 2009

I wrote a response on Android, OpenMoko, and Linux on phones in general
to a recent LWN article on Android, critical of their development phone
(in the latest weekly edition, not yet viewable by non-paying visitors).

Then I expanded that reply into an article in my blog (which has both
Finnish and English articles depending on the subject and my mood):
(Also links to the LWN article and stuff are to be found there.)

And since I'm making this posting anyway, I'll just reproduce the text
here too for your convenience, should you be interested in the read.

	Freedom to Phone

I wrote a longish comment on Android, OpenMoko, and GNU/Linux on phones
as a response to an LWN article on Android (the linked article is
viewable by paid subscribers only until around March 11th I think, after
which it's free for all to read). As a quick summary, the article is
disappointed that the unlocked development version of the Android G1
phone doesn't allow installation of most of the applications from Google
App Store (due to DRM enforcement being impossible with the unlocked
phone, perish the thought…), and problems getting updated firmware
delivered for it (while the locked version does get updates). Anyway, I
decided to extend my reply into a blog article as well since it ended up
being a nice update on my views and hopes on these matters.

I'm of the opinion that both Android and OpenMoko are good for one
thing: getting commodity Linux-supporting phones out there on the
market, hopefully some of them working with wholly free software on the
Linux system side (like the OpenMoko Freerunner, for all its other
lackings [it being my current phone by the way, though no, I still don't
recommend it for the normal user], and unlike the G1). I would sincerely
hope OpenMoko, as the pioneer in this respect, will make it at least as
a hardware company with the abovementioned focus. Failing that, one
hopes some of the future Android hardware manufacturers will come out
with products that meet this criteria.

Hell, I wouldn't terribly mind it if OpenMoko became an Android phone
developer (in fact, a port of Android for their current phones is well
underway). Like other Android sellers, they'd probably have to sell
locked versions to gain access to those consumers not wanting to be shut
out from the majority of the (oppressive…) App Store, but as long as
there'd be a choice to get an unlocked phone with its freedom unimpaired
(be it under the "developer version" moniker like with the G1 or not),
I'd be sufficiently okay with that.

In the end, if any of these scenarios work out, we won't be unwillingly
limited to that wholly non-Linuxy Android thing that just happens to run
on the Linux kernel, or even OpenMoko's OpenEmbedded derivative which I
personally find somewhat inconvenient as well (though it at least uses
standard components such as X). Rather, those of us who want a truly
flexible GNU/Linux system with no silly restrictions and good app
compatibility on our phone could run something like Debian with the
more-GNU/Linuxy-than-Android phone stack (once that
matures, which wasn't quite yet when I tried it last fall). And
incidentally, props to OpenMoko for spurring the development of said
stack. I might not like their distro a great deal, but that doesn't mean
I don't appreciate their free software development efforts in general —
even if things go more slowly and erratically than one would like.

So here's hoping for commoditization of phone hardware and more free
Linux drivers for the embedded space as well. And sure, why not that
Android VM's port to X so we can run apps written for it, at least those
of the non-DRM'd variety, on our generic GNU/Linux/X11 phones ;)

PS: To be fair to the G1 and the Google team, it does seem surprisingly
low on proprietary stuff considering the earlier Open Handset Alliance
PR about everything being able to be closed up, "yay". The biggest (and
most problematic) piece is of course — tah-dah — the OpenGL driver
(which can be done without in a pinch, but one then wouldn't rather pay
for the GPU either), and there were a couple of others as well. Taking
an Android dev at his word on an IRC conversation on #openmoko,
apparently the dev team do try to influence openness in the actual
implementations as well, which is good, even if the success is limited.

PPS: Yeah, the Freerunner has a GPU with no OpenGL drivers so far at
least, but to be fair, the chip isn't so capable on that front that this
would be a big deal ;/ "Looked better on paper." It does do some stuff,
like mpeg-4 decoding with a patched mplayer, though all and all, it
ended up being more trouble than worth and is ditched in the next
generation of OM hardware. I just mention it so nobody else feels
obligated to after my G1 GPU comment ;) 

Mikko Rauhala <mjr at>       -  
The Finnish Pirate Party         -  
World Transhumanist Association  -  
Singularity Institute            -  

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