The Enormous Empowering of Free and Open Source Software Ecosystem


It is quite disappointing to see the escalation of bad behaviour on the part of some of the partners in the technology industry legally pushed on by US politicians who have no idea what they are doing.

I got asked by many people what this withdrawal of access to the Android code by Huawei by Google would mean?

Simple. Nothing. It is just another day, another bad decision.

Why?

The Android ecosystem is driven not only by the business arrangements Google has with the various OEMs, but also by the existence of the Android Open Source Project,

The AOSP is the basis of the various replacement code that run in millions of Android phones already in the market. You have all of the functionality one expects from an Android smart phone but without access to some of the “special sauce” (proprietary) that Google provides to the OEMs. If you think about it for a moment, not having access to the proprietary secret sauce/source is actually a Good Thing.

The special code that Google provides to their OEMs is, among other things, the ability to track users. I know lots of users would say, “but how else can I use the phone”? You do not have to give up your privacy to use the Android device. And for all those who say “privacy is dead, just get on with it”, I would like to ask “why do you close the door when you use the restroom”?

I have 3 Android phones – two Nexus and one Pixel. On the Nexus I am running AOSP and the Pixel is still running stock Android OS from Google. On all three, I use, to the extent I can, mostly all open source applications – FreeOTP, Signal, Telegram, Firefox, Firefox Focus, Tor, Torbrowser, Jitsi, DuckDuckGo, OpenStreetMap, AntennaPod, Keybase, Nextcloud, MIT AI2 Companion, VLC and Feedly. I don’t use Chromium (or Chrome).

About the only Google application I use is Gmail client and Google Maps if I did not download the OSM map for the city I am travelling to. And in case it is not already obvious, I don’t use Google for search. It is DDG for me, everywhere.

I do have ParkingSG, DBS’ apps, NEA, SGBuses and some others. By and large, the phone running AOSP have pretty much the same (minus Gmail) but that is fine.

But let’s return to the issue that is annoying the tech world right now. Since Google, Intel, Qualcomm and others have been arm twisted by the USG to stop providing to Huawei, what do you think will happen? Huawei will turn to others – for the hardware components – and will also potentially spur other Chinese companies to step into the void. Thanks to a braindead move, the rest of the world has been energized to remove the Single Point of Failure situation we are all collectively facing.

Don’t get me wrong in assuming that I think Huawei is above board on all things. They probably are not. But so are the likes of Cisco, Apple etc (just search for the Snowden revelations). But, the major difference between Huawei and the US companies accused of similar bad behaviour is that Huawei has a strong link with the CCP via their CEO (if you are reading this in China, the Wikipedia page is blocked I am sure).

It is all about optics. He might indeed be a fine and honourable person. But the CCP link (and their Great Firewall of China and the slow train wreck that is their Social Credit experiment) does not bestow confidence. Compound that with the removal of the term limits on the presidency of China which essentially means one person will rule for his lifetime, does bring into sharper focus, the entire Chinese technology ecosystem in their lack of independence.

How could this be resolved. Partially, perhaps, by the CEO stepping down and having a very transparent management that we can all check for links to the CCP. This applies to the other Chinese companies as well – ZTE, Ali, Tencent, Baidu, QQ, WeChat, Didi etc. The opacity and the central control of thought by the CCP is a root cause of these troubles.

The accusations that Huawei “stole” “intellectual property” from the US is potentially provable, if we are talking about hardware. If it is about software, the code that is used to run on their systems are all essentially FOSS and GPLed code (most likely). There is no archaic 20th century style restrictions on the code and this is where Free and Open Source Code’s power is shining through. No amount of sanctions can stop the open sharing and collaboration that is already there.

Let’s make one thing clear. When you are looking at the code running on your devices (any), you have the opportunity to examine them, fix them, update them and do what you please, so long as you have access to the code. If the code is proprietary, discovering issues is really hard, not impossible, but hard.

The less informed would say that since the code is open, anyone can put in malicious code to do stuff. Of course that can happen. And precisely because the code is open, you can go in and take out the malicious code, and even publicly shame the perpetrators.

The similar statement of openness in hardware is slightly harder to make. This is because one will have to have access to the entire supply chain all the way to the chip foundry to ensure that there’s nothing that is not supposed to be in there in the first place. The issue with Supermicro board having some malicious components is a case in point. The manufacturer might actually be telling the truth that they were not aware of the issue. This is a failure of the supply chain into whcih sophisticated (perhaps state actors) work is done to incorporate malicious componenets.

Can this issue be fixed?

Potentially by having DLT (distributed ledger technologies like Hyperledger, or HashGraph, or Blockchain) in the supply chain to authenticate and verify the hardware from design to delivery. We do not yet have such a system.

To summarise, the technology world will continue to move on. Free and Open Source Software is the bedrock of all of these technology and no one can stop it from continuing to conquer the world.

 

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