Why mobile platforms need to embrace Free Software

By creating environments hostile to the GPL, Apple and other smartphone vendors could be setting back mobile computing by years

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This is important because of the distinction between Free Software and the open source movement. Open source's primary tenet is merely openness: having access to source code and being allowed to tinker with the software and to help fix bugs. The Free Software movement, on the other hand, values freedom foremost. Among other things, the GPL specifies that software developers and users have the same basic rights to install, use, modify, and distribute software in whatever way they choose, provided they agree to grant those same rights to everyone else -- and that means everyone.

This perhaps naïve-sounding idea is worrisome to commercial entities, which tend to be covetous about their investments in intellectual property. But while commercial developers may shy away from the GPL, it has yielded some incredible, groundbreaking software. In addition to the Linux kernel, the GCC compiler technology, the Emacs code editor, the Gnome desktop environment, and the MySQL database are all available licensed under the GPL, among many other packages.

This level of innovation could also be possible on smartphone platforms. Consider how rapidly mobile platforms and devices are maturing compared to the relative stasis in the PC market. Consider the emerging markets for location-based services, electronic publishing, mobile e-commerce, and more. A freer, more open developer ecosystem can only contribute to the exciting growth in the mobile software sector -- if, that is, smartphone vendors could let go of their old-fashioned, self-serving license requirements.

Could similar growth and innovation be achieved through more permissive open source licenses, such as the BSD license, or even through proprietary software practices? Perhaps. And the GPL will always be contentious. But the troubling thing is that no matter what your opinion of the GPL, in the markets for PC, laptop, and server software, it's at least an option. On the iPhone App Store, you're not even allowed to try it -- and the same may be true of other vendors' stores as well.

The vice grip tightens
Worse, this seems to be part of a growing trend away from openness on the part of smartphone makers and the mobile networks that serve them. While the debate over Net neutrality for terrestrial Internet connections still rages, AT&T, the exclusive U.S. carrier of the iPhone, recently announced that it would no longer offer unlimited data service to customers with smartphones. Verizon Wireless is expected to follow suit soon.

This is especially troubling when you consider that smartphones may be the first computing devices specifically designed for network access. In the early days of the home computing market, relatively few PCs had any kind of communications capabilities. (Raise your hand if you owned a 300-baud modem!) Mainframes and big Unix servers offered access over networks, but they were the very definition of cathedral-style computing, complete with a gray-bearded "priesthood" to act as gatekeepers. On the other hand, accessing a network is a mobile phone's raison d'être. For smartphone users, the Internet is personal, portable, and always on.

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