Why I’m not a fan of Google’s cease-and-desist letter to Cyanogen

Those of you who follow my blog or are Ubuntu Forums members may know that I often come to the defense of Google. There is a lot of Google-bashing out there. It seems to now be the cool thing to do. I almost laughed out loud when there were blog posts framing the Apple rejection of the Google Voice app as “David and Goliath” with Google being the Goliath!

I generally like Google because Google generally favors open source and open standards, and even does quite a bit of funding for open source. They have not, in the past, engaged in any of the vendor lock-in practices that Microsoft and Apple have. It is annoying if you have a Hotmail account and can’t use a regular email client like Thunderbird with it. It’s annoying if you can’t install a Google Voice app because Apple tells you what can and cannot be installed on your iPhone (and, unlike in Android, the iPhone doesn’t have an override option to say “I understand the risks of installing this third-party unapproved app but just want to do it anyway”).

I have a rooted Android phone. The term rooted in this case is a bit misleading. It isn’t a regular Android installation that has somehow been modified to allow me root access (so I can install apps like wifi tethering). It actually is a special rooted Android ROM I had to replace my regular Android installation with.

The folks who make these ROMs are volunteers who just want to make the most of what Google has advertised as an open platform. One of the most famous is a developer who goes by the nickname Cyanogen. I tried a few ROMS and Cyanogen’s was definitely the best.

He thought he was being careful. He thought (I’m paraphrasing here), “Well, I’ve modified the open source components of Android. The Google proprietary binaries (YouTube app, Google Maps app, GMail app, etc.) I haven’t modified. I’m redistributing these only to people who already have Google-branded phones. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Well, apparently, he was wrong. Google thought it was a big problem, despite the fact that only a few tens of thousands of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. Google sent him a cease-and-desist letter, claiming he did not have the right to redistribute Google’s proprietary apps in a modified ROM.

Is Google within its legal right to do this? Certainly.

Is this a good idea for Google to do this? Absolutely not. Here are the reasons why:

  • If you look at the billions of people in the world and the millions of Android phone users, only a comparatively small number of people were using Cyanogen’s ROM. This cease-and-desist letter actually brings only more publicity to ROMs (which will continue to exist but now will have to go underground).
  • Google is pissing off the very people who have been the most vocal proponents of Android. These are people who can not only help develop the platform software-wise but can advocate for friends and family to buy Android phones in lieu of iPhones or Blackberries.
  • Even though what Cyanogen was doing may have been legally wrong, it was morally right. He was not stealing money from Google or hurting Google’s business model. Google does sell those “free” apps to phone manufacturers. But Cyanogen was creating the mod specifically for phones that had regular Google Android on them anyway.
  • The real clincher for me is the fact that Google Android has been touted by Google as open source. Yes, technically the OS itself (which is based on a Linux kernel) is open source, but Cyanogen and some other ROM developers have pointed out that the way Android is, it’s basically useless without the core apps (Android Market, Google Contacts syncing, etc.).

My hope is that, for Google PR’s sake, Google undertakes the following follow-up actions:

  • Offer Cyanogen a job working for Google Android
  • Work on releasing a barebones Android framework that is completely open source but also at least basically functional.
  • Provide a way for Android users to actually root their phones without replacing the standard OS with a custom ROM. The wifi tethering app, for example, is hosted by Google. Well, what good is the wifi tethering app from Google if it can’t be used? What good is an “open source” operating system if it requires proprietary components to function?

I haven’t completely turned against Google. I do think they’re still doing a lot of good work, and they’re still more open than Microsoft and Apple. Nevertheless, this incident has left a sour taste in my mouth, and I can’t really enthusiastically recommend Android phones to people now. I like Android still personally. But it no longer has the same open source appeal it used to. So if a friend or family member asks if she should get an iPhone, I’m just going to have to say “Why not?”

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How does open source make money?

This question comes up quite often on online forums. I even had someone ask this in person recently. It’s kind of an odd question, actually, since there is a lot of proprietary software that is offered for cost-free, and no one seems to care how that software does or doesn’t make money. Well, let’s talk about it.

It doesn’t have to be cost-free
First of all, it should be noted that a lot of open source software is released under the GPL (GNU General Public License), which does allow you to charge for it. Of course, it becomes difficult to charge exhorbitant prices for software people can compile themselves cost-free. Yes, most people don’t want to go through the trouble of compiling software themselves, but they either can find someone who can do it for them, or they will learn how to do it if the alternative is forking out US$2000 for the precompiled equivalent. And even if one person did pay US$2000 for the precompiled binary, she could then redistribute copies of that binary for free. So, you can charge for GPL’ed software, but for all practical purposes you can’t charge much. People might pay US$10 for the convenience of having a large collection of software mailed (instead of downloaded) or packaged nicely with a manual, though.

But even if the software is available cost-free or you charge only a nominal fee for the software, you can still make money off support. Red Hat, for example, makes hundreds of millions of US dollars a year selling support for its server software. Support can mean anything from installation and configuration to training and troubleshooting. Most established corporations, non-profits, and schools will not purchase software that does not have paid-for support available for it, too. So open source software can make money this way.

WordPress is cost-free and open source blogging software. If you have your own web server, you can download the .tar.gz of the latest WordPress release, upload it to your server, create the appropriate MySQL tables, and have a free blog on your server. So how is WordPress able to make money? Well, it makes the correct assumption that most bloggers do not rent or own their own servers and know how to set up a MySQL database. So WordPress offers you the convenience of having the blog software installed, configured, and updated automatically, and of hosting the blog itself (providing its own server), but the version of WordPress that is offered for free blogs isn’t fully featured. So to get the extra features (the ones you’d have had cost-free if you’d uploaded the software to your own server), you have to pay for them (the ability to have limitless inline CSS or to install and configure new themes, for example).

The advertising could take many forms. It could be as simple as banner or text-based ads appearing on the homepage of the software project. But if enough people are visiting that free-to-download project’s page, the project can make some money—probably not enough to be millionaires, but enough to keep developing the software and maintain the website. Firefox is open source and cost-free, but it makes tens of millions of US dollars a year through a deal it has with Google with regard to the Google search built into Firefox.

This is a bit less lucrative, but it still bears mentioning. In stores that are few and far between, you’ll occasionally see a box for SuSE Linux or some other Linux distribution. It’s a box just as you would see for proprietary software. The software comes on a CD or DVD. A manual or orientation of some kind is included in the box. Yes, you could (if you had a fast internet connection or no bandwidth restrictions) download it for free, but if the packaged version is cheap enough and looks nice enough, you might just buy the packaged version.

No profit
So I’ve listed a whole bunch of ways open source can make money, but it doesn’t have to. A lot of open source projects are just homespun software created by people who wanted something to help themselves with a task and figured others could help them develop the software too, or by people who just have a spirit of giving and want to create something free that others can enjoy.

Likewise, some corporations will develop or sponsor open source projects for their own benefit and use, and not necessarily for profit. I believe Google uses its own custom version of Ubuntu, and I think Sun sponsors OpenOffice.

It’s not either/or
Many for-profit open source projects make use of volunteer development and volunteer projects, and what started off as a homespun project might turn into a commercial enterprise. The world of open source is a diverse one. It involves people from different cultures, countries, and ideologies. Some view open source idealistically. Some view it pragmatically. You get everything in between, too. But, yes, you can make money off open source… and you also can give it away if you’d like.

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The truth about open source and piracy

There are a lot of stereotypes about Linux users as socially awkward too-long-bearded 30-somethings living in their parents’ basements hacking illegally into government servers and indulging in “free” software that’s really pirated software. After all, isn’t that why Linux users use filesharing programs like Frostwire or visit sites like PirateBay?

The truth is that many open source advocates are against software piracy because piracy of proprietary software hurts open source adoption, and if you use open source software, there’s no reason to pirate. I know people who are dependent on Adobe Photoshop, and so when they can’t afford Adobe Photoshop, they pirate it. Same deal with Microsoft Office. Well, there’s never a time I can’t afford GIMP or OpenOffice. They offer freedom and they are cost-free.

Bill Gates may not always be ethical (or pretty to look at—sorry, but it’s true!), but he is a savvy businessperson if nothing else, and here are some of his insights into piracy:

From Gates, Buffett a bit bearish (2 July, 1998):

Gates shed some light on his own hard-nosed business philosophy. “Although about 3 million computers get sold every year in China, but people don’t pay for the software,” he said. “Someday they will, though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They’ll get sort of addicted, and then we’ll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade.”

and from How Microsoft conquered China (17 July, 2007):

Today Gates openly concedes that tolerating piracy turned out to be Microsoft’s best long-term strategy. That’s why Windows is used on an estimated 90% of China’s 120 million PCs. “It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not,” Gates says.

There you have it from the man himself. Who should be (and probably are) against piracy more than anybody? The Linux and open source people.