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Why open clouds are more important than open phones

Those who worry about software freedom in mobile phones need to think about network/cloud freedom, not device freedom.

Ars Technica's Ryan Paul wants to know, "Can a [truly open smartphone] be done?" But the real question is, "Should we care?"

Hello? Can I get some freedom around here?

I ask because some within the open-source ranks can't see the forest (choice) for the trees (freedom). For them, Freedom (with a capital "F") has but one meaning (free and open-source licensing), and is the end itself, not the means to an end (user choice).

Hence, Bradley Kuhn of the Software Freedom Law Center expresses anxiety about the future of freedom in mobile...

We are in a very precarious time with regard to the freedom of mobile devices. We currently have no truly Free Software operating system that does the job.

...when he really should be concerned with choice in mobile. Right now, we're spoiled for choice in mobile, what with Apple's iPhone, Google Android, Symbian, LiMo, Moblin, etc., which suggests that users are free to move between devices.

In this case, it's not the license that makes users free. It's the market.

Open-source software plays an important role in ensuring user choice, but it's not the sum total of the freedom/choice equation. It's just one factor. As Tim O'Reilly reminds us, it's not even necessarily the most important factor, either.

Kuhn and other free-software advocates worry that the nuts and bolts making up the software on mobile phones be free, but this is surprising given the increasing irrelevance of single-node freedom when it's tied into a network. This is what I've described as "the Hotel California of tech," and it suggests we should be far more concerned with freedom between nodes than freedom of the nodes themselves.

In other words, the real concern should be over open data, not open phones. No matter how open my phone's software may be, it's meaningless if I can't move my data between devices or wireless providers.

Even here, there's cause for hope. For example, Funambol's open-source mobile cloud synchronization and push e-mail software is in use by 10 of the leading mobile service providers, as identified in a new report, which arguably should be more relevant to the Freedom fighters than whether Bluetooth is open source.

Glyn Moody, a journalist with strong free-software leanings, understands this. That's why he makes the case for an open cloud, and not simply "open node in the cloud":

Ideally, what we need is a completely open source cloud computing infrastructure on which applications providing people with things like (doubly) free email and word processing services could be offered....The trick here is not to fight the battle on the opponents' terms, but to come up with something completely different.

For example, how about creating an open source, *distributed* cloud? By downloading and running some free code on your computer, you could contribute processing power and disc space that collectively creates a global, distributed cloud computing system. You would benefit by being able to use services that run on it, and at the same time you would help to sustain the entire open source cloud ecosystem in a scalable fashion.

One can quibble with the feasibility of this approach, but at least Moody is thinking at the right scale. Those who are still stuck in the Open Source 1.0 of isolated, client-side software are not.

I suppose someone has to fixate on upper-case Freedom above all other priorities. Like usability. Or ubiquity. Or...well, anything.

But most of us don't think this way, because the world is a lot more complicated than Freedom on one hand, and Slavery on the other. Also, the focus of freedom has evolved in our networked world, though some free-software advocates seem mired in Freedom 1.0.

It's time to upgrade. Freedom is more than a license. It derives from a competitive market, one that is assisted by open source but not exclusively or even primarily defined by it.