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Mobile-ish devices as freedom respecting working environments


On planet FSFE, there is starting to be a conversation on using tablets / Android as the main working platform.

It started with the article by Henri Bergius which nicely covers all practical points, but is quite light on the issues of freedom.

This was rectified by the article by David Boddie which makes an apt comparison of Android to “the platform it is replacing in many areas of work and life: Microsoft Windows” and criticises its lack of effective freedom, even when the OS was supposed to be under a free license.

I fully agree that lightweight/low powered hardware can be an excellent work environment, especially when on the go, and even for many kinds of software developement, but I'd very much rather have that hardware run an environment that I can trust like Debian (or another traditional GNU/Linux distribution) rather than the phone based ones where, among other problems, there is no clear distinction between what is local and trustable and what is remote and under somebody else's control.

In theory, it would be perfectly possible to run Debian on most tablet and tablet-like hardware, and have such an environment; in practice this is hard for a number of reasons including the lack of mainline kernel support for most hardware and the way actually booting a different OS on it usually ranges from the quite hard to the downright impossible.

Luckily, there is some niche hardware that uses tablet/phone SoCs but is sold with a GNU/Linux distribution and can be used as a freedom respecting work environment on-the-go: my current setup includes an OpenPandora (running Angstrom + a Debian chroot) and an Efika MX Smartbook, but they are both showing their age badly: they have little RAM (especially the Pandora), and they aren't fully supported by a mainline kernel, which means that you're stuck on an old kernel and dependent on the producer for updates (which for the Efika ended quite early; at least the Pandora is still somewhat supported, at least for bugfixes).

Right now I'm looking forward to two devices as a replacement: the DragonBox Pyra (still under preorders) and the THERES-I laptop kit (hopefully available for sale "in a few months", and with no current mainline support for the SoC, but there is hope to see it from the sunxi community).

As for software, the laptop/clamshell designs means that using a regular Desktop Environment (or, in my case, Window Manager) works just fine; I do hope that the availability of Pyra (with its touchscreen and 4G/"phone" chip) will help to give a bit of life back to the efforts to improve mobile software on Debian

Hopefully, more such devices will continue to be available, and also hopefully the trend for more openness of the hardware itself will continue; sadly I don't see this getting outside of a niche market in the next few years, but I think that this niche will remain strong enough to be sustainable.

P.S. from nitpicker-me: David Boddie mentions the ability to easily download sources for any component with apt-get source: the big difference IMHO is given by apt-get build-dep, which also install every dependency needed to actually build the code you have just downloaded.

P.S.2: I also agree with Davide Boddie that supporting Conservancy is very important, and there are still a few hours left to have the contribution count twice.
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