We’ve become used to hearing that the Android operating system for smartphones and other devices is a free, open source product. But in fact, that’s not completely true. There are still bits and pieces on every Android phone that are not open and cost someone, somewhere money. Examples usually revolve around addons installed by the manufacturer (e.g. the Sense UI on HTC phones) or the service provider (e.g. all the Vodafone or T-Mobile branded apps).
The Free Your Android movement is an attempt to help you take complete control of your handset, remove all the non-free elements and end up with a phone which you can use entirely as you wish. The initiative is sponsored by the Free Software Foundation Europe and the Free Software Foundation in the US, as well as other open organisations around the world.
One of the big problems with this whole project is the fact that the technology is just not ready yet. The only two operating systems on offer to replace proprietary Android installations are the Replicant OS, which runs on precisely three phones at the moment, and the excellent CyanogenMod version of Android, which still has to use some proprietary elements to enable all of a phone’s features.
Nevertheless projects like this are one excellent way of ensuring that the smartphone market stays competitive and open to innovation, and for that reason it’s good for the consumer too. For instance, there should be no need for any mobile phone to sign up to a central service to run, as happens now with the iPhone which needs an iTunes account. Android has a similar, although not so strict, limitation in that you need to sign up for a Google account to use the app market.
F-Droid is an alternative free software Android market which is worth supporting for this reason, and no doubt as time passes other open initiatives like this will come along. We’re going to keep watching this space to see how it develops, but in the meantime, here’s a page to help you liberate your Android phone.