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Android Handhelds Open Source Operating Systems

Chief Replicant Dev On Building a Truly Free Android 113

Posted by timothy
from the if-you-love-something-set-it-free dept.
angry tapir writes "While Android is open source, it won't work on a phone without software that generally isn't open source. The Replicant project is an attempt to build a version of Android that doesn't rely on binary blobs for which the source code isn't available to end users, and the software currently works on a handful of handsets. I caught up with the project's lead developer to talk about their efforts to make a completely open source version of Android."
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Chief Replicant Dev On Building a Truly Free Android

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  • Wrong focus (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pr0nbot (313417) on Thursday March 08, 2012 @12:50PM (#39289507)

    While all the attempts to work around proprietary obstacles (rooting, homebrew, emulation etc) undoubtedly have their merits and utility, I think the real focus ought to be on getting hold of open, documented, standards-based, royalty-free hardware.

    Maybe it's a pipe dream, but thousands of man-hours will be spunked off trying to reverse engineer radio chipsets or whatever, which could more fruitfully be spent writing or improving software.

    I appreciate that folks are free to spend their time however they like, pursuing whatever floats their boat, that's not the point I'm making. Just that getting one vendor to make one decent fully-open handset would represent such a huge step forwards compared to coercing stuff to half run on the handset of some company whose goals are diametrically opposed to yours.

  • by NuShrike (561140) on Thursday March 08, 2012 @12:57PM (#39289575)

    Ah, young idealism, trying to be the Debian. I was there, once. It is true that it's better to have open-source drivers, but you need a stable, open, documented hardware platform. PCs are, Android is neither.

    You will spend your entire life rebuilding "plumbing" after which the hardware you've built it for is long dead while its descendents -- you cannot support. A life where you didn't actually build anything useful, the next iPhone nor next game-changing piece of software-engineering, but just ran in a mouse-wheel.

    Reality is we just have to bend-over a little and suck up buying new hardware; accept the respective new binary blobs. Just try to stay above it. CyanogenMod is doing a good job there.

  • by sexconker (1179573) on Thursday March 08, 2012 @01:03PM (#39289645)

    Making a full featured open source build would require Broadcom, TI, Samsumg, and Qualcomm, etc. to release their specs or drivers for video co-processors.

    This will not happen.

    Why would it matter? It's not like there's a free, open MPEG 4 decoder (hardware or software) that doesn't infringe on patents.
    There are a ton of free and open codecs, but they're all infringing. If anyone tried to ship a (physical) device with that implementation, they'd be sued by everyone under the sun. Even if you believe a particular implementation is not infringing, there's exactly zero chance of the little guy winning in court.

    Replicant is a software project. You can download a build (or baked ROM) and throw it on your device. You have to play the revision / sku / country / network lottery. Replicant Build 1.0 works on Phone Brand X, Model Y, SKU ending in ZZZ, with a manufacture date of W or later, in country V, on network U, with features T working.
    It won't ever receive the attention from lawyers that a physical device would. But due to the work involved in maintaining it and running it, it won't ever receive the attention from regular people that a physical device would, either.

    The people who care about an open Android and are willing to jump through hoops to run Replicant won't give a shit about hardware video decoding or the DSP behind the camera not doing it's shit right. They care about not being locked down and not being tracked.

  • Redundancy (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Rydia (556444) on Thursday March 08, 2012 @01:10PM (#39289737)

    While I appreciate the thought that all software should be open-source, I can't shake the feeling that FOSS advocates are wasting their time and talent attempting to endlessly reinvent the wheel. I'm sure that avoiding proprietary blobs would be great, but it is worth all this effort with so little gain? You'll have a (very) small audience that will download it and put up with the inevitable incompatibilities, but why is so much effort being thrown at projects like this and nouveau; projects whose ideal result is something that perfectly mimics something that has already been made and is already in widespread use. Since ideal results are never possible, you are inevitably left making the excuse "sure, it's not as good, but it's more ideologically pure!" which is only really convincing for the most hardline ideologues.

    Instead of endless FOSS projects just trying to replicate things we already have, I'd like to see these supremely generous and talented people work on new projects. Why spend time on nouveau when you could work on, say, a new cross-platform graphics API? I just don't think FOSS will ever gain significant mindshare as long as it is continuously trying to emulate functional applications that people are already using.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday March 08, 2012 @01:16PM (#39289803)

    How is "use the binary blob to get your WiFi working" any different than taking the AOSP code and the binary blobs there?

    From the article:

    The Replicant team is composed by people who are going one step further: in addition to agreeing with these principles, we fully reject anything non-free running on the main CPU."

    They don't want that. Sadly, they are doomed to failure and don't even go for RMS's goal of no "non free binary blobs" running on the phone (at least if you want the phone to be a phone) with the "main CPU" limitation.

    Even if they manage to reverse engineer all of the Samsung RIL layer and get voice calls working, they still haven't touched any of the code that runs on the radio processor (and they are at the mercy of the OEM/Chipset vendors for that.) All the OEMs have to do to stay one step ahead is change the RIL/radio processor protocol when they add new battery saving feature X and the Replicant guys get to start from scratch.

    Let's say they get their 3 target phones working. They are in a race with the wireless industry as new radio chipsets come out to support new cell technologies. Even if everything they wanted to complete was done right now, there wouldn't be an LTE/4G version. There won't be a CDMA version (bye bye carrier choice.) Since 2000 modern phone networks have gone from 3G (2 varaints) to 3G transitional (3 variants) to 4G (2 variants.) 7 radio types to support across 12 years. If you want Replicant to run on the modern network, you have less than 2 years to reverse-engineer, debug, and deploy when the hardware is first released. Given that the most modern phone under consideration is the Nexus S (released back in 2010) and they don't have voice calls working.... I guess it would be a boon for cell phone carriers, in that they could support Replicant without stressing their networks with a phone that wants to do the latest high speed stuff, but that doesn't sound very geek/gadget freakish.

    This is just another variant of the "free bios"/"linux bios" project, which is ok if you want to optimize 2nd or 3rd generation hardware.

  • Re:Redundancy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PhilHibbs (4537) <snarks@gmail.com> on Thursday March 08, 2012 @01:22PM (#39289871) Homepage Journal

    I'd like to see people who give their money to the charities that they support stop doing so and give it to the charities that I support instead.

  • by FrozenFOXX (1048276) on Thursday March 08, 2012 @01:40PM (#39290143)

    Ah, young idealism, trying to be the Debian. I was there, once. It is true that it's better to have open-source drivers, but you need a stable, open, documented hardware platform. PCs are, Android is neither.

    You will spend your entire life rebuilding "plumbing" after which the hardware you've built it for is long dead while its descendents -- you cannot support. A life where you didn't actually build anything useful, the next iPhone nor next game-changing piece of software-engineering, but just ran in a mouse-wheel.

    Reality is we just have to bend-over a little and suck up buying new hardware; accept the respective new binary blobs. Just try to stay above it. CyanogenMod is doing a good job there.

    You're absolutely right, no good will ever come of trying to replicate and eventually surpass closed-source efforts. I'm definitely glad nobody ever decided to reverse-engineer UNIX or even implement his own version of of it. I mean that'd just be craziness!

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