FSF Raises Money for a Replicant

Jul 30, 2013

All-free Android fork longs to support more devices.

The Free Software Foundation has announced an effort to raise funds for the Replicant project. Replicant is a Free-software version of the Android mobile operating system. The name "Replicant" comes from the name for the extremely lifelike Androids in the classic science fiction film Blade Runner.

The Replicant project actually started in 2010, but the project has kept a low profile up to this point. The recent announcement could signal an effort by the FSF to raise awareness about this effort to create a mobile system that lives up to the FSF definition of free software. Although Android is based on Linux, and Linux uses a license that FSF classifies as free (GPL2), Google has come under fire recently for delaying the release of source code for Android. Also, certain surrounding components within the Android system, such as device drivers and codecs, as well as many end-user applications, do not meet FSF standards for free software.

Android is not alone is missing the mark: several other Linux distributions also do not meet the FSF Free Sofware definition. Free software proponents have a tradition of forking projects that are theoretically open source to create all-free versions. (The web browser Ice Weasel, for instance, is an all-free version of Mozilla's Firefox.)

According to the FSF, the fundraising effort will mostly raise money to buy new devices for development and testing, although some of the funds might be used for "infrastructure and promotion of the project." The system currently works on ten mobile devices, including "multiple phones from the Samsung Galaxy S line and tablets from the Galaxy Tab line, as well as the Google Nexus S." The project needs a working copy of any phone they want Replicant to support, which requires an expense of $400-$600 in hardware costs alone.

An important counterpart to Replicant is the F-Droid, an Android-compatible app repository with all-Free-Softare apps. The developers point out that you don't even need Replicant to access the F-Droid repository, and the FSF recommends F-Droid as a replacement for the Google Play store.

Although the FSF press release doesn't mention it, the Replicant fundraiser is interesting juxtaposed with Canonical's recent announcement of a crowd-funding effort to raise money for an Ubuntu phone. FSF chairman Richard Stallman has been critical Canonical in the past for sacrificing privacy and including non-Free components within Ubuntu. As the whole high-tech industry migrates into the mobile space, the FSF has served notice that it will continue to fight for its own definition of software freedom.

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