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Freedom on the Handheld, why is it important?

Its been a while since I last wrote anything but, after reading about AT&T’s talks with Apple about extending the iPhone exclusiveness on AT&T until 2011, I began thinking more and more about the vendor lock-in.  My dad actually admitted the other day that he wants an iPhone but finds the requirement of a data plan to be useless (just lost yourself a sale AT&T).

Next there’s the thing about Google Android banning teathering apps from its marketplace when its supposedly a “free” platform.

And finally there’s the issue regarding a new trick called “Blackjacking” (well, its not really new).  Blackjacking is essentially hacking through Blackberrys (or any other mobile device, Blackberry’s were just the most prolific at the time when the term was coined).

And this totally neglects the whole “contract” issue.  I can’t even imagine what the other writers on this site have to put up with since they keep up with the current generation of devices.

So this coins the question, why does freedom matter?  Well, its a complex question, and if you don’t know the answer already, whether you live in a free country or not, then there’s probably no hope for you.

Lets answer this through example though.  You pay AT&T or whomever your provider is probably an exorbitant amount for your service.  Especially in these hard economic times I’m willing to bet that your cellular bill occupies at least a portion of those thoughts regarding bills you know you have to save for.  $100-200/month and on up can do that to you.

But why do you pay it?  My guess is, ultimately for the exchange of information, whether its keeping up with the latest stock quotes (ok, probably not a good example, I don’t think ANYONE wants to keep up with those right now :), the latest threads on your favorite forum (ours), or just keeping up with your wife/kids/parents/etc and knowing what they’re up to.

In the terminology of computer hackers (read this article, MIT-style hackers, not information security “crackers”), the ability to exchange data without being encumbered is known as the “free exchange of information.”  MIT-style hackers are intellectuals and experimenters.  In a sentence “Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking.”(Richard Stallman)  For them, the free exchange of information is important for making progress, and maybe its not practical, like MIT placing a Fire Engine on top of the Great Dome to commemorate the 5th year following the 9/11 attacks[1], but they’re impressive feats that require thought, ingenuity, and talent.

However this exchange of information is important to everyone, not just hackers.  It matters to you because you’re free to exchange information, or are you?

Are you free to take a device that you purchased at the AT&T store to a competing wireless 8 months into your 4 year contract with AT&T when somebody else publishes a better rate with better features? (lets not talk about the phones being discounted then, if anything it’d be AT&T’s problem for selling them that cheap when they can’t afford to be doing so)

If you’re like me, you’re still on the AT&T Tilt as your primary phone and still suffering from a lot of the driver issues.  Optimization and reverse-engineering is met by hostility from just about all companies involved who failed to adequately provide for the consumers who paid their dues.

But these are monetary reasons and while important, they diverge from the point a little bit.

Now keep in mind, I’m just using AT&T as an example, just about all wireless carriers are similar to this in modern times.

But what about our freedom to exchange information?  Lets go back to the teathering apps.  AT&T offers data plans to go along with their PDAs and such.  Its general knowledge that if you do teather, keep your usage low so you can fly under the radar and not get noticed.  But sometimes the local wifi stinks and the 3″ device with a skimpy 400mhz ARM-RISC processor just isn’t cutting it.  You pay for the service, is it not your right to use it?  If your job depended on you teathering to your phone and editing a file, isn’t that an acceptable usage of a service you use within advertised bounds?

Ok, so maybe you’re convinced by now about not having freedom you’d like to have.  Maybe not, but in all likelihood you are.

You’re probably convinced, at least partially, why its important, but I’m going to go a step farther.

I’m going to quote Richard Stallman in his essay “Why Software Should Not Have Owners” when he makes the valid point that the restriction of the flow of information is most formally seen in the Soviet Union “…where every copying machine had a guard to prevent forbidden copying, and where individuals had to copy information secretly and pass it from hand to hand as “samizdat”.”

Then, we have the extreme.  Sometimes companies go way overboard and we end up with the iPhone Jailbreak problem.

Regarding that, if I’m to understand correctly, by “purchasing” an iPhone, I’m not actually “buying” so much as paying a large sum of money for the right to use a device still owned by the company that made the device/offers the service.

Before you counter with a whole slew of information about Apple’s iPhone, keep in mind that the Woz actually supports people jailbreaking their iPhone and even did it himself.

Woz does a great job summing the whole effort up “I think it’s a great thing … to make the software work exactly the way they need it to.”

So whether its the exchange of your information, or making something work exactly the way you want it to and not how some suit who sees you as a numbered line item wants it to work (the free exchange of information qualifies here as sharing your results in how you managed to accomplish this), freedom is important and the handheld is seriously lacking.

There are hopes, take a look at the OpenMoko/Neo Freerunner.  Its a nearly free device in just about every way, but ultimately we have a long way to go before we’re even remotely free.

But just look at some of the things that have been accomplished.  Namely the inclusion of the XP Mode inside of Windows 7.  The incompatibility of Windows Vista just didn’t fly with consumers and as a united group they rejected it and now one of the biggest companies on the planet is bringing us something that we all asked for.  Just keep in mind, its possible.

If you want more information I recommend that you check out the GNU Project, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Free Software Foundation.

And one last thing.  If you’re a developer, don’t let anyone tell you that porting Google Android to the AT&T Tilt and asking for money to do so is wrong.  Stallman argues that its perfectly in the clear.  Just wanted to throw that in.