Can Android be made truly free and open source?

In today's open source roundup: Ars Technica tries to create a truly free and open source version of Android. Plus: Why open source mobile efforts have failed, and Minimal Linux Live has been released

Android has taken the world by storm, but many open source advocates view Google's mobile operating system with a dubious eye. Can Android ever be made to be a truly free and open source operating system? Or is too tied to Google's products and services? Ars Technica took a stab at creating a FOSS version of Android.

According to Ars Technica:

Android is a Google product—it's designed and built from the ground up to integrate with Google services and be a cloud-powered OS. A lot of Android is open source, though, and there's nothing that says you have to use it the way that Google would prefer. With some work, it’s possible to turn a modern Android smartphone into a Google-less, completely open device—so we wanted to try just that.

Completely open Android is possible, but it feels like a constant uphill climb. It's harder and sometimes impossible to find open source solutions for many tasks. Even if you do find something, it will probably be uglier and less capable than the latest stuff out of Google HQ. But if you're willing to deal with a few headaches and slog through the sparse app selection, you'll have a better handle on your privacy and be able to brag that you have a (mostly) open source phone.

More at Ars Technica
All FOSS Android
Image credit: Ars Technica

This is one of the more interesting Android articles I've run across lately, and I think it qualifies as being a truly noble experiment. Alas, the last paragraph of the article seems to indicate that a truly FOSS version of Android is a pretty tough thing to achieve.

I think it underscores the dangers of having a large company like Google being the force behind Android. If you don't really care about FOSS then Google owning Android isn't a problem at all. But if you want your mobile operating system to be FOSS-only then it becomes a real challenge to chop off all of Google's tentacles.

Perhaps the best thing that can come from this article is a realization that we need viable FOSS alternatives to Android for the folks who want them. Being dependent on Google (or Apple or any other large company) brings with it a certain set of chains, and those chains are very hard to break if you want a mobile operating system that is truly free and open source.

The failure of open source mobile operating systems

On the other hand, InfoWorld has a pretty negative take on open source mobile alternatives to Android.

According to Infoworld:

Open source mobile efforts have a history of failure: Moblin, Maemo, MeeGo, and Tizen are all examples that have been shepherded into oblivion by the Linux Foundation and an assembly of vendors. Canonical's Ubuntu Touch, Mozilla's Firefox OS, and Jolla's Sailfish (derived from MeeGo) all seem to be following similar trajectories to nowhere.

All of these issues -- a hobbyist mentality, a back-pocket strategy, and a low-capability focus -- explain why open source mobile OSes have gone nowhere. Sure, there've been plenty of failures in the proprietary world -- Nokia's Asha and Symbian OSes are now dead, as are Palm's Palm OS and WebOS (outside of LG entertainment devices), and BlackBerry and Windows Phone continue to struggle. But there's also been the amazing success of Android and iOS, as well as a continued, determined effort to make Windows Phone succeed.

More at InfoWorld

Well wouldn't you know I'd run into this InfoWorld article right after spouting off in my commentary above about the Ars Technica story! It took the wind out of my open source sails when I first started to read it, but I recovered quickly and I have to disagree with the negativity in the article.

I think the InfoWorld author's take on open source mobile efforts is a bit too jaded. It feels like he's writing off any open source effort to challenge Android or iOS, and that's not a good thing for any of us. Mobile users need truly free options that exist outside of the usual Google, Apple and Microsoft giant corporate hegemonies.

For example, I think it's far too early to begin passing judgement on Ubuntu Touch or Firefox OS. Both are younger than Android and iOS, and I think we need to give them time to deal with the usual developmental growing pains any operating system faces, mobile or otherwise. They will mature and become more refined, just as Android and iOS have over the years.

But we're going to have to be patient while this happens. In the short term we're stuck with the Android and iOS duopoly, but technology is always changing and there's no guarantee that today's dominant mobile operating systems will be tomorrow's.

Minimal Linux Live released

Minimal Linux Live is now available.

According to Minimal Linux:

Minimal Linux Live is a set of Linux shell scripts which automatically build minimal Live Linux OS based on Linux kernel and BusyBox. All necessary source codes are automatically downloaded and all build operations are fully encapsulated in the scripts.

More at Minimal Linux
Minimal Linux Live
Image credit: Minimal Linux

You have the option of downloading Minimal Linux in two ways: scripts and pre-built ISO images. You can grab the scripts in ZIP format. The ISO images are available in x86 or x64 formats.

What's your take on all this? Tell me in the comments below.

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of ITworld.

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