Technology and society, the cellphone example

After many months without blogging, you can notice I’m blogging a bit more about my own opinions than before. Part of it is because these are things I can write about without risking conflicts of interests with work, so that makes it easier to write, and part of it is because my opinions differing from what I perceive as the majority of Free Software advocates. My hope is that providing my opinions openly may, if not sway the opinion of others, find out that there are other people sharing them. To make it easier to filter out I’ll be tagging them as Opinions so you can just ignore them, if you use anything like NewsBlur and its Intelligence Trainer (I love that feature.)

Note: I had to implement this in Hugo as this was not available when I went to check if the Intelligence Trainer would have worked. Heh.

Okay, back on topic. You know how technologists, particularly around the Free Software movement, complain abut the lack of openness in cellphones and smartphones? Or of the lack of encryption, or trustworthy software? Sometimes together, sometimes one more important than the other? It’s very hard to disagree with the objective: if you care about Free Software you want more open platforms, and everybody should (to a point) care about safety and security. What I disagree with is the execution, for the most part.

The big problem I see with this is the lack of one big attribute for their ideal system: affordability. And that does not strictly mean being cheap, it also means being something people can afford to use — Linux desktops are cheap, if you look only at the bottom line of an invoice, but at least when I last had customers as a -Sysadmin for hire- Managed Services Provider, none of them could afford Linux desktops: they all had to deal with either proprietary software as part of their main enterprise, or with documents that required Microsoft Office or similar.

If you look at the smartphone field, there have been multiple generations of open source or free software projects trying to get something really open out, and yet what most people are using now is either Android (which is partly but not fully open, and clearly not an open source community) or iOS (which is completely closed and good luck with it.) These experiments. were usually bloody expensive high-end devices (mostly with the excuse of being development platforms) or tried to get the blessing of “pure free software” by hiding the binary blobs in non-writeable flash memory so that they could be shipped with the hardware but not with the operating systems.

There is, quite obviously, the argument that of course the early adopters end up paying the higher price for technology: when something is experimental it costs more, and can only become cheaper with enough numbers. But on the other hand, way too many of the choices became such just for the sake of showing off, in my opinion. For instance in cases like Nokia’s N900 and Blackphone.

Nowadays, one of the most common answers when talking about the lack of openness and updates of Android is still CyanogenMod despite some of the political/corporate shenanigans happening in the backstory of that project. Indeed, as an aftermarket solution, CyanogenMod provides a long list of devices with a significantly more up to date (and thus secure) Android version. It’s a great project, and the volunteers (who have been doing the bulk of the reverse engineering and set up for the builds) did a great job all these years. But it comes with a bit of a selection bias. It’s very easy to find builds for a newer flagship Android phone, even in different flavours (I see six separate builds for the Samsung Galaxy S4, since each US provider has different hardware) but it’s very hard to find up to date builds for cheaper phones, like the Huawei Y360 that Three UK offers (or used to offer) for £45 a few months back.

I can hear people saying “Well, of course you check before you buy if you can put a free ROM on it!” Which kind of makes sense if what constraints your choice is the openness, but expecting the majority of people to care about that primarily is significantly naïve. Give me a chance to explain my argument for why we should spend a significant amount of time working on the lower end of the scale rather than the upper.

I have a Huawei Y360 because I needed a 3G-compatible phone to connect my (UK) SIM card while in the UK. This is clearly a first world problem: I travel enough that I have separate SIM cards for different countries, and my UK card is handy for more than a few countries (including the US.) On the other hand, since I really just needed a phone for a few days (and going into why is a separate issue) I literally went to the store and asked them “What’s the cheapest compatible phone you sell?” and the Y360 was the answer.

This device is what many people could define craptastic: it’s slow, it has a bad touchscreen, very little memory for apps and company. It comes with a non-stock Android firmware by Huawei, based on Android 4.4. The only positive sides for the device are that it’s cheap, its battery actually tends to last, and for whatever reason it allows you to select GPS as the timesource, which is something I have not seen any other phone doing in a little while. It’s also not fancy-looking, it’s a quite boring plastic shell, but fairly sturdy if it falls. It’s actually fairly well targeted, if what you have is not a lot of money.

The firmware is clearly a problem in more than one way. This not being just a modified firmware by Huawei, but a custom one for the provider means that the updates are more than just unlikely: any modification would have to be re-applied by Three UK, and given the likely null margin they make on these phones, I doubt they would bother. And that is a security risk. At the same time the modifications made by Huawei to the operating system seem to go very far on the cosmetic side, which makes you wonder how much of the base components were modified. Your trust on Huawei, Chinese companies, or companies of any other country is your own opinion, but the fact that it’s very hard to tell if this behaves like any other phone out there is clearly not up for debate.

This phone model also appears to be very common in South America, for whatever reason, which is why googling for it might find you a few threads on Spanish-language forums where people either wondered if custom ROMs are available, or might have been able to get something to run on it. Unfortunately my Spanish is not functional so I have no idea what the status of it is, at this point. But this factoid is useful to make my point.

Indeed my point is that this phone model is likely very common with groups of people who don’t have so much to spend on “good hardware” for phones, and yet may need a smartphone that does Internet decently enough to be usable for email and similar services. These people are also the people who need their phones to last as long as possible, because they can’t afford to upgrade it every few years, so being able to replace the firmware with something more modern and forward looking, or with a slimmed down version, considering the lack of power of the hardware, is clearly a thing that would be very effective. And yet you can’t find a CyanogenMod build for it.

Before going down a bit of a road about the actual technicalities of why these ROMs may be missing, let me write down some effectively strawman answers to two complaints that I have heard before, and that I may have given myself when I as young and stupid (now I’m just stupid.)

If they need long-lasting phones, why not spend more upfront and get a future-proof device? It is very true that if you can afford a higher upfront investment, lots of devices become cheaper in the long term. This is not just the case for personal electronics like phones (and cameras, etc.) but also for home hardware such as dishwashers and so on. When some eight or so years ago my mother’s dishwasher died, we were mostly strapped on cash (but we were, at the time, still a family of four, so the dishwasher was handy for the time saving), so we ended up buying a €300 dishwasher on heavy discounts when a new hardware store just opened. Over the next four years, we had to have it repaired at least three times, which brought its TCO (without accounting for soap and supplies) to at least €650.

At the fourth time it broke, I was just back from my experience in Los Angeles, and thus I had the cash to buy a good dishwasher, for €700. Four years later the dishwasher is working fine, no repair needed. It needs less soap, too, and it has a significantly higher energy rating than the one we had before. Win! But I was lucky I could afford it at the time.

There are ways around this: paying things by instalments is one of these, but not everybody is eligible to that either. In my case at the time I was freelancing, which means that nobody would really give me a loan for it. The best I could have done would have been using my revolving credit card to pay for it, but let me just tell you that the interests compound much faster on that than with a normal loan. Flexibility costs.

This, by the way, relate to the same toilet paper study I have referenced yesterday.

Why do you need such a special device? There are cheaper smartphones out there, change provider! This is a variation of the the argument above. Three UK, like most of their Three counterparts across Europe, is a bit peculiar, because you cannot use normal GSM phones with them, you need at least UMTS. For this reason you need more expensive phones than your average Nokia SIM-free. So arguing that using a different provider may be warranted if all you care about is calls and text, but nowadays that is not really the case.

I’m now failing to find a source link of it, but I have been reading this not too long ago (likely on the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, as those are the usual newspapers I read when I’m at a hotel) how for migrants the importance of Internet-connected mobile phones is significant. The article listed a number of good reasons, among which I remember being able to access the Internet to figure out what kind of documents/information they need, being able to browse available jobs opening, and of course to be able to stay in touch with their family and friends that may well be in different countries.

Even without going to the full extreme of migrants who just arrived in a country, there are a number of “unskilled” job positions that are effectively “at call” — this is nothing new, the whole are of Dublin where I live now, one of the most expensive in the city, used to be a dormitory for dock workers, who needed to be as close as possible to the docks themselves so that they could get there quickly in the morning to find job. “Thanks” to technology, physical home proximity has been replaced with reachability. While GSM and SMS are actually fairly reliable, having the ability to use WiFi hotspots to receive text and SMS (which a smartphone allows, but a dumbphone doesn’t) is a significant advantage.

An aside on the term “unskilled” — I really hate the term. I have been told that delivering and assembling furniture is an unskilled job, I would challenge my peers to bring so many boxes inside an apartment as quickly as the folks who delivered my sofa and rest of furniture a few months ago without damaging either the content of the boxes or the apartment, except I don’t want to ruin my apartment. It’s all a set of different skills.

Once you factor in this, the “need” for a smartphone clearly outweighs the cheapness of a SIM-free phone. And once you are in for a smartphone, having a provider that does not nickel and dime your allowances is a plus.

Hopefully now this is enough social philosophy for the post — it’s not really my field and I can only trust my experience and my instincts for most of it.

So why are there not more ROMs for these devices? Well the first problem is that it’s a completely different set of skills, for the most part, between the people who would need those ROMs and the people who can make those ROMs. Your average geek that has access to the knowledge and tools to figure out how the device works and either extract or build the drivers needed is very unlikely to do that on a cheap, underpowered phone, because they would not be using one themselves.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg, as that could be fixed by just convincing a handful of people who know their stuff to maintain the ROM for these. The other problem with cheap device, and maybe less so with Huawei than others, for various reasons, is that the manufacturer is hard to reach, in case the drivers could be available but nobody has asked. In Italy there is a “brand” of smartphones that prides itself in advertisement material that they are the only manufacturer in Italy — turns out the firmware, and thus most likely the boards too, are mostly coming from random devshops in mainland China, and can be found in fake Samsung phones in that country. Going through the Italian “manufacturer” would lead to nothing if you need specs or source code. [After all I’ve seen that for myself with a different company before.

A possible answer to this would be to mandate better support for firmware over time, fining the manufacturers that refuse to comply with the policy. I heard this proposed a couple of times, particularly because of the recent wave of IoT-based DDoS that got to the news so easily. I don’t really favour this approach because policies are terrible to enforce, as it should be clear by now to most technologists who dealt with leaks and unhashed passwords. Or with certificate authorities. It also has the negative side effect of possibly increasing the costs as the smaller players might actually have a hard time to comply with these requirements, and thus end up paying the highest price or being kicked out of the market.

What I think we should be doing, is to change our point of view on the Free Software world and really become, as the organization calls itself software in the public interest. And public interest does not mean limiting to what the geeks think should be the public interest (that does, by the way, include me.) Enforcing the strict GPL has become a burden to so many companies by now, that most of the corporate-sponsored open source software nowadays is released under Apache 2 license. While I would love an ideal world in which all of the free software out there is always GPL and everybody just contributes back at every chance, I don’t think that is quite so likely, so let’s accept that and be realistic.

Instead of making it harder for manufacturers to build solutions based on free and open source software, make it easier. That is not just a matter of licensing, though that comes into play, it’s a matter of building communities with the intent of supporting enterprises to build upon them. With all the problems it shows, I think at least the Linux Foundation is trying this road already. But there are things that we can all do. My hopes are that we stop the talks and accusations for and against “purity’ of free software solutions. That we accept when a given proposal (proprietary, or coming out a proprietary shop) is a good idea, rather than ignore it because we think they are just trying to do vendor lock-in. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t, judge ideas, formats, and protocols on their merits, not on who propose them.

Be pragmatic: support partially closed source solutions if they can be supported or supportive of Free Software. Don’t buy into the slippery slope argument. But strive to always build better open-source tool whenever there is a chance.

I’ll try to write down some of my preferences of what we should be doing, in the space of interaction between open- and closed-source environments, to make sure that the users are safe, and the software is as free as possible. For the moment, I’ll leave you with a good talk by Harald Welte from 32C3; in particular at the end of the talk there is an important answer from Harald about using technologies that already exist rather than trying to invent new ones that would not scale easily.

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