Friday, December 17, 2010


A few years back there was a big hoo-hah in the open source world, and it was at least partially responsible for the creation of the GPLv3. That hoo-hah was the TiVoization of the Linux kernel.

In short, what happened was this:

TiVo, inc. created their famous PVR device, which took the world (especially the geek world) by storm. At the heart of the device was a bunch of GPL software, including the Linux kernel. This later fact was, IMO, a large part of why TiVo took the geek world by storm, but that's another argument.

TiVo did what any good company using GPLed software should do - they delivered the source of their modifications to the GPLed software, and kept their non-GPLed software scrupulously away from the GPLed stuff.

So far, so good, right? Wrong.

Whilst it was possible for anyone to recompile their own version of the TiVo firmware, it was not possible to flash that recompiled firmware onto a TiVo branded device. The firmware images used to flash the TiVo were cryptographically signed, and the means to do that was not public. There were, of course, good reasons for this, not least of which was that the media companies would have, legally speaking, shat upon TiVo, inc. from a great height if it were not so.

There was much oohing and aahing from the GPL advocates over this, and it was generally decided that this was somehow wrong, and it was going to kill the GPL, and other such crap. And thus was born the GPLv3, which "protected" not only the software, but also the hardware it was designed to run on. Linus and the other kernel developers, who saw little wrong with what TiVo had done, decided to stick with the old GPLv2 anyway, and to hell with V3.

Fast forward a few years. The Linux kernel has not died. The GPL has not died. But now there is a threat to the GPL, and it is attacking both v2 and v3. It's a real and present danger, and it's being ignored (at best) or cheered on (at worst). That threat has a name. Its name is Android.

It's not Android as such that is the threat, but the market in which it is being used - mobile devices. An open system is anæthema to the hermetically closed world of mobile phones and telecoms carriers.  Android is being claimed as the saviour of the open source world from the big bad ogres at Apple and MS.  I believe this claim is wrong.

Even Google aren't being the open source heros they are claimed.  The (non-GPL parts of the) source for Android 4.x (Ice Cream Sandwich) was released months after the first devices hit the street, and I'm not sure if the 3.x series has ever been made public.

Telephony providers are absolutely against people reflashing their devices (or even rooting them), and many mobiles are every bit as TiVoised as the original TiVo.  And that inability to reflash is being used as a marketing device by the providers / manufacturers.  "Benefit from Android x.x", they trumpet, "get yourself a new contract with handset / tablet X.1", quietly ignoring the fact that handset / tablet X.0 could quite happily run Android x.x should they bother to take a little time to provide a firmware upgrade.  And yet Apple are "evil", and "push you to consume", although they have a policy of supporting hardware for a decent amount of time.  No, Apple are evil because they are "closed source", and to avoid that we'll happily get fucked up the arse by someone waving a GPL banner.

But the worst, the absolute worst, of the lot, are the Chinese manufacturers of cheap Android enabled devices, motherboards, and chipsets.  It is absolutely impossible to get them to release the slightest piece of source code, despite the fact they are obliged to do so.

Android is nothing more than a system for pushing ads to your mobile device.  It's nothing to do with freedom, unless you're talking about Google's freedom to rape your private data.  The telephony providers are using it because it costs them jack shit.  Nothing to do with consumer benefit, nothing to do with freedom, simple bottom line accounting.  The Chinese manufacturers are using it for the same reason, and because MS have got harder on hooky copies of WinCE.

None of them give a flying fuck about "freedom", but between them, they may bring the GPL down.

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