Mikkel Høgh

When Free is actually limiting

Friday, 18th of July, A.D. 2008

Is no big surprise that the Free Software Foundation doesn’t like the way things are going with Apple and its iPhone. There is no doubt that the App Store is a great blow to the free software movement. It is currently impossible to distribute GPL-licensed software through it, without violating the GPL’s restrictions.

Given that the App Store is the only way for most consumers to get software on their new, shiny devices, the free software guys stand in a position where their license is actually a barrier to adoption.

Their article ”5 reasons to avoid iPhone 3G” is predictable. Apple has control of what software they allow to be distributed through its channels. Apple does DRM. Apple doesn’t support Ogg Vorbis and Theora.

These are all valid concerns, but they continue on to call Steve Jobs a snake oil salesman and claiming that there’s better options on the horison, in form of the OpenMoko-based Neo Freerunner.

And while OpenMoko might be an interesting project, it’ll probably be several years before the project is actually in a state where it could be found useful by the average consumer. It might actually never get there. That is the curse of free software. Never finished, never polished, never fully working the way it’s supposed to has been the story of the Linux desktop for year and the Linux phone story seems to be no different. OpenMoko might be currently shipping with GTK-based software, but about the same time as they started shipping, they decided to switch to Qtopia. So, now they have not one buggy stack of software to support on their phones, but two. Wonderful.

And while you can say many things about Steve Jobs, calling him a snake oil salesman just undermines your own credibility. He’s a fabulous salesman, but what he sells are real computers, real phones, real gadgets and real software. All products that millions of people use and are glad to use.

So to the FSF, I have only one thing to say: “Put up or shut up.” - if you think that free software can do better, prove it. If ever OpenMoko materialises as a solid, polished product that someone like my boss would buy, I’ll be impressed.

Until then, you should perhaps consider your future. Its not much that keeps your software from getting on the iPhone, only your misguided insistence that even the cryptographic keys for signing the code should be open source as well. No body is saying that Open Source is a bad idea. I think it’s a great idea, but please don’t let ideology get in the way of the software.

I think we should encourage open source around the iPhone instead. While you cannot distribute the source code through the App Store, there is (as I understand it) nothing hindering you from publishing it somewhere else. And while only the holder of the keys can build and publish the code, there’s nothing that hinders you from editing it, sending patches or using it for something else.

Update: Another (hilarious) take on the FSF’s iPhone-slamming: http://www.theangrydrunk.com/2008/07/16/how-did-i-miss-this-tripe/

Mikkel Høgh

My name is Mikkel Høgh, I've worked with web tech for the last 20 years. These days, I work with e-commerce in Central Switzerland.