December 17, 2014

Fight the Fights Worth Fighting For

AndMobThe whole Cyanogen ROM brouhaha has seen a whipsawing set of emotions from all corners of the Android ecosystem. Directly, I have no horse in this race, insofar as I do not use Cyanogen ROMs and have no near-term plans to do so — I need factory-fresh devices in order to develop and teach development on the standard platform.

The good news is that Cyanogen seems to be shifting gears towards making a ROM free from proprietary bits, that would then blend with proprietary bits from a user’s device to form a fully-functional personal ROM. While this is a bit less of an explored territory from a legal perspective, it’s undoubtedly better than shipping unlicensed proprietary bits.

It also appears that Google has opened up a better line of communication to Cyanogen. Assuming things went down as originally depicted (“cease and desist” relatively out of the blue), that was ham-handed, but par for the course for the legal departments of big corporations. I’ll have more thoughts on what should be done on the communications front in a post in Monday’s Android Angle column on NetworkWorld, where I usually put my unsolicited (and frequently unheeded) advice to Google.

My concern is with the visceral and hate-filled reaction from some members of the community over the original cease-and-desist and to some of Google’s explanations. The anger is misplaced. The problem is not that Google is trying to stop redistribution of proprietary bits: the problem is that we need some of those bits in the first place.

The Vision

In July 2009, a mobile carrier based in the United Arab Emirates pushed out an update to some 100,000 Blackberry users that contained spyware, designed to monitor and report on email messages. Whether this spyware was put into the patch by accident, by a decision from the mobile carrier, or by orders from the UAE government, is not clear.

Call me crazy, but I’m not a big fan of this.

I long for the day when I can have a quality consumer-grade mobile communications device in my pocket, whose firmware has been vetted against spyware by groups with my interests at heart (e.g., EFF), and that contains the requisite software to allow me to keep my data and communications as free from interception as I choose. Then, and only then, will motivated mobile users be secure that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.

Android might be the OS powering that device. It, along with an open source Symbian, are really the only two current possibilities, since we really need end-to-end open source to feel as confident as possible that there are no backdoors or malware lurking about, and open source alternatives either lack the hardware support or are not designed for smartphones with user-chosen apps.

If you want a fight worth fighting for, consider liberty sometime. Not everyone has it, even in nations that claim it as part of their mission statement. Liberty is particularly relevant now, since the very thing that hung up Cyanogen is what prevents Android from fulfilling its portion of the liberty vision: proprietary bits.

Achieving the Vision

Google could have easily backed away from the Android ecosystem over the reaction to the Cyanogen incident. In many ways, I couldn’t even blame them — what major corporation would willingly try to assist a bile-spewing community? There are easier ways to turn a buck than to open employees up to attack.

Beyond whatever communications that have gone on between Google and Cyanogen in the past 48 hours, at least one Googler is pushing forward. Jean-Baptiste Queru (JBQ), in the midst of the hate, renewed a call to get the open source Android to be capable of powering an Android device without modifications. The goal is simultaneously modest (one Android version, one device) and challenging (lots of proprietary entanglements amidst the open source code). This goes along with other existing fragmented initiatives along similar lines.

Once that is done, we still need to replace proprietary drivers with open source equivalents (as has been done many a time on Linux), ensure there will be access to freely-distributable app markets with robust contents, and so on. Having a hardware vendor in our corner would help, though I can only think of one consumer device manufacturer with a truly strong track record with open source hardware.

Complain all you wish about how the Google Android applications should be freely downloadable or whatnot. But, if you are going to get seriously agitated, consider directing those energies towards something that has a chance of making a difference in society. Heaven knows we could use the help.



  • Brahmson

    The Google complaint against "CYANOGEN" teaches us that Google is trying to control the Android market and the Android user experience. Exactly like Apple controls the iPhone market.

    This opens the door for for Apple/AT&T to go back to the FCC and say that they are exactly like Google and there is no merit to the complaint about GoogleVoice.

    Google made a big legal mistake. Penny wise (win vs Cyanogen), pound foolish (lose vs. Apple/AT&T).

  • Joe

    @Brahmson
    Explain to me, how is it "exactly" the same? Do you even know what has been going on? Have you spent more than 1 minute thinking about this? Because I sure can't see how this is exactly the same.

    The whole thing isn't even about the market. Does Apple let you install applications outside of the app store? Does Apple let third parties start their own markets? Does Google need to approve apps before submitting them to the market? Does Google reject apps when they are (partly) duplicating functions already in Android? Does Apple let you install modded firmware?

    Seriously, you haven't got a clue.

  • Joe

    Oh, my compliments on the article btw.
    Refreshing to see there are people still capable of writing down a sensible, rational and calm article on this.

  • spoon

    Okay. I agree there was over-reaction to this incident. That's the good and bad of the internet ; Instant feedback and reaction but little incentive to reflect and digest things before reacting in a more objective manner. But I think the key reasons for the reactions are these:
    1. People bought these devices specifically to avoid incidents like this. Android is marketed as an open platform, but nobody had specifically mentioned the small print referring to Google's binaries as being separate.
    2. For a lot of people, these are expensive investments and modders like cyanogen are a reassurance that their devices will not be out of date in 6 months.
    3. It seems as if Google were punishing cyanogen for improving their rickety product.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/chuckfalzone Chuck Falzone

    Great piece, Mark.

  • http://www.psychocats.net/ubuntucat A.Y. Siu

    Complain all you wish about how the Google Android applications should be freely downloadable or whatnot.

    The issue isn’t that Google Android applications should be freely downloadable. Cyanogen, although technically and legally in the wrong was morally right. So getting a hand-slapping instead of a courteous talking-to was not appropriate action for Google to take. Are they legally within their rights to do so? Sure. If people did everything that was within their legal rights to do, there would be a lot less goodness in the world.

    Cyanogen did not modify Google’s proprietary binaries. And he did not customize his ROMs or advertise his ROMs as for anything but phones that already come with licensed copies of Google’s proprietary apps.

    I’m glad Cyanogen is trying to find a way to work around this legal annoyance and technicality, but the truth is he did nothing wrong.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/commonsguy commonsguy

      "The issue isn't that Google Android applications should be freely downloadable. Cyanogen, although technically and legally in the wrong was morally right."

      You assume an absolute universally-agreed-upon set of morals. I think a quick glance around our planet would suggest there is no such thing.

  • Moby

    You had me until you said "The anger is misplaced". The fact that you would make such a broad-handed generalization and negation of the opposition against Google's move frankly reeks of pride and self-importance. I am not inclined to let androidguys.com tell me my anger is "misplaced". Personally I think Google screwed thje pooch on this one. I think they are letting the legal bean-counters take point on this and it is foolish in the extreme to alienate the very vocal and comparitively intelligent open-source crowd. FACT: Cyanogen took an OK OS and turned it into a GREAT OS, because it was finally DOABLE for once… and regardless of any efforts he may be currently making to work around the C&D order, Google has endangered his contribution to an otherwise average OS that has no chance of gaining any real foothold without true innovation.

  • Moby

    ALL that was required was the slightest investigation on Google's part to determine he was providing all Google apps EXACTLY as THEY provided them, nothing more or less. That being said, they could have easily turned their head and allowed him to continue to contribute and IMPROVE their OS as he was. Maybe he will be able to continue, maybe not… but the fact that they have treated his contribution with this heavy-handed reaction has frankly tainted my view of them… They ceased being "Google" and became just another corporation. And I can absolutely buy the other poster's comparison to Apple, because this is EXACTLY the kind of thing they would pull. Are they as BAD as Apple? Nowhere NEAR as bad… but it sure as hell could be a step in that direction.

  • A S

    I know the writer meant well, but advising us to direct our displeasure towards more worthwhile things simply doesn't make sense in this case. It is like saying we should all direct our efforts, energies and emotions to lofty things like ending world hunger or doing cancer research or finding the cure for AIDS, etc. And until those big-ticket issues of humanity are all resolved, we should not direct our interests and passions towards less worthy things we all do on a daily basis, like our day jobs. Come on – this guy is the best writer on the Android Guys team. Expected better attitude from him.

    People are angry because Google seemed to renege on its promise. It was behaving less Googley (never mind that legally, it might have been right). People don't get so worked up if someone is an asshole from day one and behaves like an asshole today. But if someone projects themselves as Mr Nice Guy to begin with and actively sells that perception, and all of a sudden if he acts even slightly like an asshole, the displeasure of the people will be proportionately much higher.

  • newspeak

    I have to say i am happy the way things turned out but this is just stupid

    it should of gone another way but that’s just how things go…the sad thing for me is that most likely the upgrade path for my g1 will end at donut

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/commonsguy commonsguy

    "And until those big-ticket issues of humanity are all resolved, we should not direct our interests and passions towards less worthy things we all do on a daily basis, like our day jobs."

    No, I'm saying that there are ways of solving the problem (eliminating proprietary bits) that helps Cyanogen-style ROMs, has the potential to help in broader ways (e.g., defending liberty), and does not require calling people "douchebags".

    "But if someone projects themselves as Mr Nice Guy to begin with and actively sells that perception, and all of a sudden if he acts even slightly like an asshole, the displeasure of the people will be proportionately much higher."

    Do you really think this justifies the level of hatred displayed on this issue? The spamming of the ADC2 app comments on the Market?

  • MoMo

    Wow, this post disgusted me.

    Seriously, if Google had to say something to straight things out, how is the "hate" not "something that has a chance of making a difference in society".

    I admit I was angry toward Google at one point due to confusion, but I just read this article as AndroidGuys calling me an unconstructive hate misplacing person.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/commonsguy commonsguy

      I wrote "hate-filled reaction from some members of the community". If you didn't have a hate-filled reaction, great! I wish everyone had taken that approach.

  • http://zelrik.blogspot.com zelrik

    I would say that Android is not open source. Well actually it's more like too many parts of Android are not open source, making the word "open source" overrated for that OS. If Google put their acts where mouth is, legal mods would be much easier to do.

    By the way I am a heavy user of Google apps and I bought that phone for that purpose. I also bought that phone thinking the OS was open source. Now that I cant use custom roms, I do what? I do a factory reset and put everything back up? That's not what I call an open platform !

  • chris

    Android is open source. Get a grip people. Android is the OS, gmail/youtube/market are proprietary apps that run on the open source OS, Android.

    Linux is an open source kernel, nvidia drivers are a proprietary software that runs upon linux.

    You can use custom roms, Google just wants their proprietary apps kept out. The beauty of open source is that you can write you own apps for these services, if not then I guess you are SOL.

    Why is it the basic android community fails to separate license/software levels?

    • David

      Probably because, until this point, Google themselves have done a good job of lumping their proprietary apps in with the OS itself. The perception is that Android is very closely integrated with Google's offerings, while it's actually the Google apps that provide this integration. It seems strange that Google would take this route now, after working so hard to build the connection between themselves and Android in the eyes of the public. Perhaps in the long run, though, this is a good thing for Android. Necessity is the mother of invention – if the open-source community creates open-source applications that provide an alternative to the Google proprietary apps, so much the better.

      Google may have just taken the first big step toward making itself irrelevant in the Android community.

  • http://twitter.com/hdlopes @hdlopes

    "Android might be the OS powering that device. It, along with an open source Symbian, are really the only two current possibilities…"

    You have Nokia supported Maemo (for ARM, maemo.org) and Intel supported Moblin (for Atom, moblin.org), which are also opensource and seem to stand better chances than symbian.

    But I like the direction AOSP is taking.

  • HAZARD

    This is bias…

    Bloggers need the Android Community to stick together, with out us who will pay their bills to run these websites so they can get more ad money…. I'm done with this and multiple other sites…. until YOU (AndroidGuys) learn to be unbiased consider me out.

    I will listen to the voice of the Developers that make this OS great, not the money hungry press that needs us to create revenue!!!

  • https://mutiarar06.student.ipb.ac.id Mutia

    i'm sure this open source OS will be developed with no limit.. Everyone have their chance to develop something,, this is a nice move to keep Android alive.. We–the user– will never leave our android phone without develop it.. Nice Piece..

  • http://dscw190review.info Marian

    Its really the Andriod days! Go, lets fight for it!

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  • Aaron Harris

    They have much more advance OS as this time. This is so over with. Sorry guys, new one in the markets are better these days. Canada Drugs