The Free Software Foundation thinks you shouldn't buy the iPhone if you value freedom. They make some valid criticisms of the pocket-sized wonder. But they go too far in trying to make a consumer choice into a political decision. I value free software, but I like my iPhone 3G quite a bit, too, and I don't have to choose between them.

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

July 18, 2008

6 Min Read

The Free Software Foundation thinks you shouldn't buy the iPhone if you value freedom. They make some valid criticisms of the pocket-sized wonder. But they go too far in trying to make a consumer choice into a political decision. I value free software, but I like my iPhone 3G quite a bit, too, and I don't have to choose between them.The FSF released a list of five reasons to avoid the iPhone 3G. It starts: "iPhone completely blocks free software. Developers must pay a tax to Apple, who becomes the sole authority over what can and can't be on everyone's phones."

Lifehacker's Gina Trapani explains:

Note: When the FSF refers to "free software," it doesn't mean the free apps in the iTunes App Store. Those are "free as in beer," essentially giveaways, when "free as in speech," is software built with the belief you have the right to manage your own data and use it and modify it the way you please. Here's more on the philosophy of free-as-in-freedom software.

The iPhone's conflict with free software and open source is rooted in General Public License Version 3, which requires that users should have the right to modify and install open source software, according to However, Apple's software developers' license requires that Apple -- not the GPL3 -- controls which programs can be run and installed on the iPhone.

The GPL3 also requires that developers distribute source code for their programs, which might be prohibited by the iPhone's developers' license, says.

The FSF lists other objections to the iPhone.

  • iPhone endorses and supports Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) technology.

  • iPhone exposes your whereabouts and provides ways for others to track you without your knowledge.

Does the FSF have a problem with the iPhone in particular, or with location services in general? Because any location-enabled device has the potential to let others track your position. That's inherent to the technology. An engineer can examine the source code and hardware design of an open source device and determine whether it's tracking them in secret. But most of us are not engineers, and so an open source smartphone offers little advantage over proprietary technology.

The iPhone asks your permission every time it wants to disclose your position. That's privacy protection. If anything, the iPhone seems excessive in constantly asking "mother, may I?" I know that Twitterific and Google Maps want to disclose my position, I don't need to be reminded every time.

If you're not going to use an iPhone, what should you use? The FSF has an alternative: "iPhone is not the only option. There are better alternatives on the horizon that respect your freedom, don't spy on you, play free media formats, and let you use free software -- like the FreeRunner."

In other words: FreeRunner is going to be here any day now. and it's going to kick the iPhone's ass. There's a word for that kind of thing when proprietary technology vendors do it. It's called vaporware. You're foolish to fall for it when proprietary vendors do it, and you're no less foolish to fall for that strategy when used by open source advocates.

The FSF says:

Free software has given us many exciting things on the desktop -- the GNU/Linux operating system, the Firefox web browser, the suite, the Apache webserver that runs most of the web sites on the internet. Why would we want to buy a computer that goes out of its way to obstruct the freedom of such creators?

Indeed, free software is wonderful. But the iPhone doesn't obstruct the freedom of open source creators. Just because I open an Italian restaurant doesn't mean I'm part of an anti-Chinese-restaurant conspiracy.

Apple is clearly trying to restrict technology choices on the iPhone platform, and they're doing it to maximize their own profits. Of course that's true, that's what business is all about -- increasing profits. But I think they're also doing it to ensure that the iPhone is stable and to minimize the likelihood that users will download garbage applications that make the iPhone user experience rotten.

Will that prove to be a successful strategy? I don't know. FreeRunner, Google Android, and other open source smartphone platforms are just around the corner, and and other competitors are working hard to catch up with Apple. Time will tell whether the iPhone is superior technology, or the Netscape of smartphones -- a market leader for a short time that quickly got trampled by the competition.

The FSF makes its strongest case when it accuses Jobs of being a hypocrite on the subject of DRM.

But it's been a year and a half since Jobs, under pressure from the public, spoke out strongly against DRM and in favor of freedom. With great hesitation, he allowed a handful of files to go DRM-free on iTunes, but kept in place the requirement that they be purchased using the proprietary, DRM-infected iTunes software. Since then, he has done absolutely nothing to act on those words. In his movie and video ventures, he has continued to push DRM. And now he's bringing it to mobile software applications as well. It's become clear that those words were a ploy to defuse opposition.

The FSF is right about that -- Apple claims to hate DRM, but their behavior says they love it.

But then the FSF once again goes too far, accusing Apple of hypocrisy because it includes open source technology in its products. Apple's OS X is based the Mach Microkernel and BSD Unix operating systems. But just using open source technology in some things doesn't require Apple to use it in everything.

I love open source technology, but I've yet to see an argument why I need to be an open source purist. Personally, I use Firefox and Linux. At InformationWeek we use Movable Type to run this blog, and we host the site on Apache.

But, I also use the Mac, Windows, and dozens of proprietary applications.

I have no religious preference between proprietary and open source business models -- I want them both to thrive, and give me plenty of great technology choices. Competition benefits the consumer. I want the iPhone to thrive -- and I want its competitors, both open source and proprietary, to thrive too. That's what happened on the desktop and servers: Linux, Windows and the Mac are all thriving platforms. Competition makes them all stronger.

The FSF espouses open source, and open source is a wonderful thing. But proprietary technologies have their advantages too, and there's no reason to have to swear off one choice just because you choose the other. If the iPhone loses in the marketplace, it'll lose to superior technology, not misplaced idealism.

What do you think? Are you avoiding the iPhone because it's proprietary? What are you using instead? Let us know.

Update 1:35 pm EDT: John Gruber of Daring Fireball delivers his pithy analysis: "They're accusing Apple of concocting the whole thing as some sort of profit-making scheme." Bastards!

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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