Why are Linux users OK with closed source software on phones?

I use F-Droid on a phone running CyanogenMod. I can’t do everything I could with the Play Store, but the experience is stable, and I can do the vast majority of what I want to do. I had to jump through a few hoops to get CyanogenMod installed, but that was a one-time struggle.

This isn’t unlike using Linux on the desktop. But it appears to me that getting apps from F-Droid is a weird thing to do, even among folks who generally avoid closed source software on their desktops (such as our lovely BV hosts).

We are at a point in time where you can flash Android or B2G OS (Firefox OS) to a phone or order one running Ubuntu or Sailfish OS (though without all the bands we use here in the US). The options aren’t perfect, but they exist.

This makes me wonder why so many people who care about using free and open source software on their desktops are fine with using closed source software on their phones and tablets. Is it because desktop Linux users don’t want to go through this process again? Is it because we’re not willing to give up certain apps and services?

With mobile devices containing so much of our personal information, I find it confusing how we can have strong values and concerns regarding one platform but not another. Why is this?

These questions are aimed at everyone here, but I would love to hear this topic discussed on a future episode of the show – which is awesome, by the way. Keep up the great work!

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I wonder the same thing, myself. I don’t even own a cell phone for many of the same reasons I don’t run Windows or MacOS X on my desktop/laptop computers. It is simply… not ok.

Let’s pose this question to my co-hosts. What say yet, @sil, @jonobacon, & @jeremy? :slight_smile:

Me: I’m not that bothered about individual bits of software being open. If I have a choice, I prefer to use an open source thing, but if there’s no open alternative, I’m OK with a closed thing – I play games, for example. I’m also kinda averse to the attitude presented by people who are using a thing mostly because it’s open rather than mostly because it’s useful, and F-Droid’s an example of that. I don’t like “FSF-approved distributions” which hide all mention of closed-source on my desktop either. So I think that there’s no sharp division here?

As I said in the show, for me it’s all about trade-offs. If a true open source option existed that was even close to the option I use now, I would use that instead. Bryan has chosen to live without using a cell phone. That’s the only real option you have if you want a completely open stack to my knowledge. That’s not an option I’m willing to choose. bertel chose to “struggle”, “jump through hoops” and still isn’t able to “do everything [he] could with” his previous option. I used to make that choice but no longer do. Android is open source, and I limit the data I make available to Google to a level I am comfortable with (No Bryan, I cannot verify that with 100% certainty but I also tend to believe that large scale conspiracy theories are very difficult to keep secret for long. The math for my reasoning is available here). Obviously this decision (and the inputs involved, really) are going to be different for each individual. Continuing to make people aware of how critical privacy and freedom are is extremely important and something I will continue to do. Hopefully with enough education people will make better decisions. Being overly dogmatic about an issue typically isn’t going to help bring the majority to see your side with better clarity in my experience.



sing it, brother.


I use only open source software on my laptop - or at least I did, until I was conned into buying a Brother “Linux-supporting” MFD with “open source drivers” which turns out not to have open source scanner drivers. Grr.

I have proprietary software on my phone (which runs CyanogenMod) for two reasons. Firstly, drivers - there are no 100% free OSes running on modern phone hardware, even before you install apps. If you want a modern device, CyanogenMod or something similar is the best you are going to be able to do.

Secondly, the ecosystem of open source software for Android is tiny. F-Droid has about 1000 apps. By contrast, how many are in the Debian/Ubuntu repos? And the capabilities just aren’t there. I have F-Droid and use it for stuff (even though its UI sucks compared to the Play Store) but I can’t find a decent: mapping application with good search, calendar, or VPN client. Or any good games. Also, lots of firms make proprietary apps for their service - EE, HSBC, Amazon, BBC News, Vidyo, TripAdvisor etc. And they don’t build offline-capable websites so their apps are much easier to use than the HTML versions.


Hey folks, long time listener first time caller.

I’m going through this kind of dilemma at the moment. For the past 8 years I’ve only had 3 devices: A linux laptop, an android phone and a kindle. The android phone I’ve always just used as is, no modding, as I don’t feel like I could justify the cost if I bricked it.

The kindle I use mostly with DRM-free books that I put on via usb or email, but the draw of the kindle store is regrettably too convenient to ignore forever. So I’ve bought a number of books from the store, mentally I just think of it as renting, and some of the books that I’ve liked I ended up buying on paper back anyway so I have a backup. I happen to live somewhere with a pretty good public library, so often I will get the book from the library before buying the kindle book if that’s an option.

Recently I’ve decided I’d like to get a tablet-like device, mostly for reading on, but If I’m going to be spending £100-£200 on a tablet, it feels like I might as well just buy a cheap laptop that I can put linux on, heck, I could even put android x86 on it, I’d have the choice to put whatever I want on right?

I would say I’m not cool with binary blobs, lock in, closed source etc. The reason I don’t by an open source phone is the lack of readily available, competitively priced, viable alternatives.

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A big reason why open source software on phones doesn’t get more traction is because in many cases it’s not the software that is useful but the services that are provided with that software. Having the source code for Google Maps, Google Now, Gmail, Amazon, Netfix, etc. wouldn’t do you any good if you can’t provide the associated service yourself, and given that most of those involve world-wide networks of information it would be hard for any one person to operate one by themselves.

I guessing most Linux user’s priorities are with usability, before the free software philosophy, which is fair enough, we still need to get stuff done, even if we have to use propriety software. I personally use B2G on the LGFx0, but I can see why I didn’t catch on. I personally really like it, but I hardly use apps - for me a phone is simply a web browser for my pocket and a way to share internet with my laptop while on the bus or at a place with terrible wifi. It’s perfect for that but almost unusable for anything else.

A similar question is why do Linux users install Chrome, rather then (in most cases as well as) Chromium, Firefox or any other open source browser? Simple, only Chrome supports the DRM system Netflix uses. Usability is key.

For better or for worse, that’s not true. AIUI Firefox also supports one of the DRM schemes Netflix uses. http://www.theinquirer.net/inquirer/news/2344972/mozilla-grudgingly-brings-netflix-to-linux-with-drm

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Each to their own. I heavily use macOS and iOS on devices right in front of me daily, with a tiny sprinkling of Win7, Win10, BB10 and whatever-the-fuck-real-time-Linux-my-Kindle-is-runningOS. A lot of the apps I use daily are open (or openish) source). Each to their own, right?

(NB: Server side is like 99% Ubuntu Server, every day, all day long, and I live in terminal windows most of the work day anyway)

The risk of installing an alternate operating system on a mobile phone is much higher.

Installing Linux on a desktop or laptop is almost guaranteed to work properly. And if one distribution has a hardware support problem, another one might not.

If I try to install Cyanogenmod or Replicant or FirefoxOS on a phone, I can brick the phone. That’s potentially a $200, $400, or even $700 mistake. In my particular case I left Verizon Wireless earlier this year. The Cyanogenmod wiki instructions for unlocking the boot loader on my Verizon-supplied HTC phone failed, and the Cyanogenmod wiki specifically mentions that the unlock instructions for my son’s Verizon-supplied Samsung phone won’t work if it has ever run the latest Verizon firmware - and it has. So I can’t even experiment with those devices.

Thanks for the responses, everyone!

Hi @jeremy. I feel compelled to clarify that sentence you’ve quoted. That “struggle” and “jumping through hoops” mainly amounts to learning how to use Android ADB (which I consider a frustrating tool) and becoming familiar with the terminology (bootloader unlocked vs carrier unlocked?). This, to me, seems like the kind of frustration that would lead someone to Linux Questions when they’re approaching Linux for the first time. I’ve “struggled” similarly in the past figuring out how to flash Linux distros to flash drives and get Wi-Fi cards or printers working. But I am very glad I made the effort, because I am pleased with how far open source software on laptops and phones has come.

With my question, I’m not getting at the issue of converting others. I’m mostly interested in the people who are “already converted,” so to the speak. I created this thread to see what keeps people who already embrace open source software on their desktops from doing the same on their phones… I don’t see myself as overly dogmatic, as I’m aware that CyanogenMod has many closed bits. But I still prefer to run open source apps, similar to how I install free software on a Linux desktop that has closed binary blobs to make my Wi-Fi work. I’m not here to plug my work, but I write for Android Police, and I’ve summarized my perspective there.

What I’ve seen from most responses so far seems to fall under a combination of my initial questions, which is that “desktop Linux users don’t want to go through this process again” (except for newer Linux users, for whom using Linux hasn’t been as difficult as it was in the past) and/or are “not willing to give up certain apps and services.” Or as @grenorange said, free software values matters less than usability.

@grenorange Happy to see another LGFx0 owner. I bought one (another plug – it’s like I’m @bryanlunduke :slight_smile: ). It sounds like we approach phones in a similar way. In addition to a web browser, I want a decent podcast player and music app. So it doesn’t matter to me if an app store has thousands or millions of apps.

If you’re interested, @gerv, I combine OsmAnd with Acastus to get around the address searching issue. I downloaded Offline Calendar in order to use the default calendar app without a Google account. And I configured my VPN to work through OpenVPN. I don’t use my phone for gaming, which is admittedly a big reason I can even consider using something other than Google Play or the Amazon Appstore.

@mike_s I have the same concern with installing Linux on a computer that comes with Windows 8 or 10. That’s why I haven’t bothered and, for my most recent PC purchase, bought a laptop with Linux pre-installed. A $1,000 Windows PC is a pretty high stakes risk too.

Again, thanks everyone for your responses. This was helpful for me.

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I think buying a Zareason or System76 or other laptop with Linux pre-installed is wonderful for many reasons. If I were to buy a new machine, that’s how I would proceed.

But I think the best way to convince other people to use Linux is to suggest it as an option when their existing Windows machine has serious problems and their recovery options don’t work. I usually suggest they run Linux from a USB flash drive, and if it works properly they can install it over Windows. And if it doesn’t work, or they don’t like it, they can just buy a new copy of Windows or a brand new machine.

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