2018-05-26

Buying a phone with Free Software support

Free Software

I started being more aware of Free Software (not "Open Source" as defined by Richard Stallman). The importance of it can not be overstated.

The difference (in Android's case) is that while Android is Open Source, you can't change the source code running on your device. However, Free Software (codified in GNU GPL 3.0) requires distributing installation instructions as well.

Many times "Open Source" poses the same restrictions as if it were not open source (the freedom is gone!), so the apps running might as well be a binary or a proprietary web service (which is the case, in many cases!). This means the provider has full control over what you do with your phone - and many times it exerts that control.

However, there are quite some important Free Software initiatives about Android phones:

  • F-Droid, a free-software repository alternative to Google Play.
    • Here you can find apps that don't spy on you, such as QR Code readers and a game with more than 1000 Solitaire variants.
      • Imagine you want to scan the QR code of a password. Do you trust it with nonfree software which has Internet permissions?
      • Games without ads! You should donate to the authors if you appreciate them.
  • LineageOS, a free-software distribution of Android; the successor of CyanogenMod.
  • Replicant; an even freer-software project; but it has missing support for some features.

Buying a phone

The sad fact is that given a random recent phone, there's not much chance that it's supported by LineageOS (LOS). The reason is that a volunteer must take time to port LOS to that particular combination of hardware (some of which may be entirely new).

Also, the manufacturers are not particularly interested in helping the project, since it goes against their plans. Since profit margins on the hardware are very thin, manufacturers want to push their own software (proprietary binaries with proprietary web services). Samsung even wants to use a separate OS, which is no small feat.

Voting with your money

However, some recent phones are still supported (see here). And how else to tell manufacturers to quit bundling nonfree software, than by ONLY buying phones supported by LOS?

I wanted to buy a new phone, and I will show you how I went about it.

Researching candidates

EDIT: There is a Reddit thread where people recommend devices. You can use that also.

Sadly, there is no user-facing way to sort the supported devices. So, I made use of software freedom, and found a way: download the LOS wiki's source code, and grep for each device's release date to find the newest-released supported phones.

git clone https://github.com/LineageOS/lineage_wiki.git
cd lineage_wiki/_data/devices/
grep "release:" * | sort -k 2

Now you get something like:

mido.yml:release: 2017-01
a5y17lte.yml:release: 2017-01-02
a7y17lte.yml:release: 2017-01-02
h870.yml:release: 2017-02
us997.yml:release: 2017-02
sagit.yml:release: 2017-04
cheeseburger.yml:release: 2017-06
chiron.yml:release: 2017-09
dumpling.yml:release: 2017-11
star2lte.yml:release: 2018-03-11
starlte.yml:release: 2018-03-11

These are the YML entries of the devices. You can check each one individually, and find out what the device name is (AFAIK you can't install LOS on a cheeseburger :)).

(Writing this I noticed I forgot to look at the devices at the top of the output, which are missing the release date. But I don't want to; I already ordered my phone. If you want to; you can take a look yourself.)

I did this myself manually , and filtered out the phones with less than 32GB of storage, and those outside my budget (though I kept Galaxy S9 as a reference).
I then manually linked them to features I cared about (its review on China-prices.com, benchmarks, Jack audio, MicroSD slots, and physical durability, tested by JerryRigEverything on YouTube).
I also created a "score/RON" column, where I take the China-prices reviews and benchmarks, normalize them (0-1), average them, and divide them by the price.
Here is the resulting output: Google Drive spreadsheet

I ordered the Moto Z Dual Sim, and it was the last piece (sorry you won't get it).

Word of warning

There are still some dark truths lying deep within smartphone hardware:
In case you can no longer find and install sufficiently-free hardware/software combinations, I urge you to forego mobile computing for good.
For me personally, LOS is enough; but you may have other needs. Perhaps the best and easiest choice for some less-technical people is simply installing F-Droid alongside the black-box binary-blob OS that came with their phone.

Conclusion

While we may be quite free in general, sometimes there is a price to pay for living in a such developed society: society takes more control of the individual.
That is why the individual should fight against that price, and negotiate with society.

By not giving companies your hard-earned money to enable them to spy on you, while getting little in return, you draw the line, as an individual.

The more people become aware of this, the more "society" will give in, and your influence as an individual will increase.

Stand up for your ideals, even if only once in a while!

There will be a part 2 of this post, which will detail my installation of LOS on the Motorola Moto Z.

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