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Interview: Harald Welte (part 1)

Gadgets running Linux are a lot of fun, but much of the value of using Linux is lost if the resulting device is locked down and not hackable. In cases where the device has been opened up, no end of creative hacks have resulted; see, for example, the OpenWrt project. It is hard, however, to imagine a device with more fun hacking potential than the Linux-running Motorola a780 cellular telephone. There is no end of interesting things which could be done (and annoyances which could be fixed) if that platform were to be opened up.

The good news is that Harald Welte has managed to open the a780 and install new software onto it. With the OpenEZX Project, he is working on creating a full replacement for the stock software for Motorola's EZX phone platform. The following interview, the first in a two-part series, discusses the current and future state of OpenEZX.

LWN: What is the status of the OpenEZX project now? Is it at a point where relatively casual users might want to play with it?

I would say it's at a state where the casual linux developer can play with it, i.e. we have a 2.6.16.x based kernel running on the phone, with support for framebuffer, flash, microSD, touchscreen, usb-device (usb-net mode), usb-host.

We have both a working debian-arm root filesystem and an OpenEmbedded one. You can boot your phone using 100% Free Software (blob boot loader, linux kernel, ...), ssh into it via usbnet, start a KDrive X11 server, use your stylus, etc.

However, one of the most fundamental pieces (interaction with the actual 'phone' part, i.e. making calls) is not yet there. After Motorola has released (after much pressure) the sources for the formerly-proprietary kernel modules implementing this, I'm half way through to port them to 2.6. and integrate them.

However, since I'm virtually the only guy working on the -ezx kernel tree, and I have many other projects and real-world issues to take care of, progress is quite slow.

I expect that within one month, we'll have the phone part working, and can work on the remaining sound + camera drivers.

What obstacles remain before an a780 or similar phone will actually be useful as a phone while running a free 2.6 kernel? How can interested people help?

At this time people can start to work on OPIE, GPE, etc. on the phone. They can develop userspace programs, but they can only use the device as a PDA and not as a phone yet.

For getting the phone part working, somebody with kernel device driver development, esp. in the tty layer, usb driver and networking area (in this priority) would be required. For me, the tty layer is new, I'm only familiar with networking and usb driver development.

Once the basics have been taken care of, do you have a shopping list of improvements to make which would take these phones beyond what Motorola ships?

My most important list:

  • add cryptographically secure storage for all personal data such as contacts, calender, SMS, etc.
  • make sure nobody can just dump the flash contents by plugging in a USB cable (like it is the case with the stock models)
  • get the Linux native IPsec code running over GPRS
  • add support to use a Bluetooth keyboard with the phone
  • add a Jabber IM client to the phone. Who wants SMS if they can send and receive Jabber messages over GPRS?

Is Motorola cooperating with (or hindering) this project in any way?

As for OpenEZX itself, I haven't really had any direct positive or negative contact with them.

As for the general GPL compliance (which helps OpenEZX, but which is a legal requirement): Hard to say. To my impression, on the one hand, there are some technical people who really like to help the GPL compliance, and who are pressing for releasing the source of formerly-proprietary modules. They actually also want to get me phone samples in order to help them identify any remaining GPL issues, which is good.

On the other hand, there seem to be some corporate/legal folks who try to play hard, cause delays, and have very rude negotiation skills. I guess they don't really understand what they're doing there.

On the technical front, I've heard some rumors that the A1200 and especially the later models will make use of the TPM (yes, the PXA270 has a TPM!) in order to ensure nobody boots non-Motorola-signed kernels. To me, this would be a clear violation of the intent of even GPLv2, and should those rumours become true, I'll certainly do anything to enforce my position on this. But as said, all rumours, nothing definitive known yet.

Many thanks to Harald for answering these questions. Stay tuned for part two of this interview (covering Harald's GPL enforcement activities), which will appear within the next week or two.

Comments (13 posted)

iTunes runs into trouble in Norway

June 14, 2006

This article was contributed by Eivind Kjørstad

To readers of LWN it is nothing new that DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) systems restrict consumer choice and limit even lawful access to works controlled by them. Now, however there are encouraging signs that some governments are starting to understand this problem.

In Norway (and other Scandinavian countries) there is a "Consumer Ombudsman", his purpose is to ensure that companies act fairly and lawfully toward consumers, and in particular that they adhere to the Marketing Control Act. As it turns out, using DRM may pose problems here, especially when combined with restrictive terms of use (as is typically the case) that prevent the user from bypassing or disabling the DRM. According to the Ombudsman, the terms of service used by the iTunes Music Store (iTMS) are illegal. Furthermore, the DRM used on the downloaded songs further violate the same laws. The situation is similar in Sweden and Denmark as they have nearly-identical consumer-protection laws, and iTMS has nearly-identical terms of use there. The Consumer Ombudsmen in Sweden and Denmark are currently launching similar inquiries.

An 11-page letter of complaint was sent to iTMS on May 30th. The letter became publicly available on the 7th of June and is very encouraging reading. I will summarize the main points of interest for LWN readers as the letter itself [pdf, 11 pages] is available only in Norwegian. There is however a press release available in English.

The main point is that the restrictions imposed by the terms of use and the practical restrictions that arise from the DRM combine to create what is an unbalanced, one-sided and grossly unreasonable agreement for consumers. This is a general impression, conveyed by the agreement as a whole. Additionally to this, the Ombudsman mentions around a dozen points that are individually unreasonable and/or illegal. Many of these points have no relation to DRM, but a few are aimed directly at the DRM and the related terms of use.

iTMS reserves the right to, at any time, even after the sale, retroactively change the terms of use. It is a basic principle of Norwegian contract law that a contract is binding, and that changing a contract after it's been agreed upon requires the consent of both parties. The ombudsman points out that, in its extreme consequence, this term alone removes all rights of the consumer. Even those rights you appear to have at the time of purchase can at any later time be removed by unilateral changes to the terms of use.

Complicating this matter, the terms of use are frequently enforced by the player software and DRM. For example, the software may refuse to burn a CD with certain songs if the terms of use for these songs do not permit that. A concern is that future updates to player software might cause customers to lose functionality that they previously had. Saying that you are free not to upgrade is not an acceptable solution if upgrading is a prerequisite for playing newer songs. This would put undue pressure on the consumer to accept the "upgrade" even if the upgrade will remove many of his previous rights.

The Norwegian iTMS can only be used from Norway. This restriction is enforced by only allowing Norwegian credit cards to be used on the Norwegian iTMS, by the terms of use and by the employed DRM. This is geographical discrimination of consumers, and an artificial barrier to trade. Both are at odds with EU free-competition law. Currently the same song is sold for £0.79 in the UK and $0.99 in the USA, a price-difference of 46% at todays exchange-rate. A customer from the UK is prevented from buying cheaper from the American iTMS.

The DRM on the music ensures that it plays on only a small number of devices, mainly those produced by Apple themselves. Selection of technical protections where licenses are not given to third parties, and where no open source players exist (lack of open source players is explicitly mentioned) can lead to a problematic locking of content and players; in order to listen to your music you might be forced to buy a certain player. Not because it's the one you prefer, but because it's the only one supporting the DRM.

Some content is "iTMS exclusive", which is problematic as long as that means only being playable on a limited number of devices. A result could be that such content is not playable at all in the future, should Apple choose not to cooperate. If it does not generate a profit for Apple to make old content available on the next generation of platforms, the result could be the permanent loss of the content.

"Cultural content has importance to society above and beyond its ability to generate a profit," the Ombudsman writes; he is also critical of developments which might end up limiting access to cultural content that is not profitable. He notes that the lack of licensing of the DRM means that in the future we will either get a monopoly in music distribution, or consumers will be forced to buy two or more playback devices to be able to listen to the music they want. And, for good measure, it is currently easy to remove the iTMS DRM so the restrictions may end up harming lawful consumers while having little or no effect on large-scale illegal copiers.

The next thing that happens is that Apple needs to answer the letter by June 21st. The Ombudsman's first choice is to reach an agreement with Apple and avoid the need to take legal action. It is pretty hard to believe that outcome will be possible in this case. If an agreement is not reached, the Ombudsman will file a formal complaint with the Market Council. The ruling of the Market Council is legally binding unless appealed to the courts within 3 weeks.

It is worth noting that most of the problematic terms of use are not unique to iTMS, neither is the use of DRM. Similar terms and similar technology are used by several of the main competitors to iTMS. According to the Ombudsman, they will demand changes to the terms of use and/or the DRM used also from the other companies if they are successful with iTMS. They choose to start out with iTMS simply because it is the largest actor.

While the issues the Ombudsman raises are valid and important, there is still something missing. The lack of open source players is mentioned, but only in passing as part of the discussion of the DRM used not being widely licensed. It is not stated explicitly, but the impression given by the letter is that removing the possibility of retroactively changing contract terms and licensing the DRM under RAND terms would go a long way toward satisfying the Ombudsman's objections.

The larger good coming from this is thus likely to be the increased awareness of all the issues surrounding DRM. At this stage, increased general knowledge of DRM can only be a good thing.

Comments (23 posted)

Google Earth for Linux

Sometimes, when a fun toy becomes available, your editor has no alternative but to go off and play with it. Later on, when LWN deadlines loom, the next step is obvious: justify all that playing by writing an article. One of those moments came when Google finally made its Google Earth application available for Linux under a free-beer license.

Unlike Picasa, Google Earth is a native Linux application, ported to the Qt widget set. Like Picasa, however, Google Earth is not free software. So it comes as a large shell script which we, trusting users that we are, are expected to feed directly to bash. A few clicks later, the application is installed, and the user can proceed to explore the planet on a Linux system.

At least, that is how it is supposed to work. Google Earth promptly crashed on your editor's x86-64 Fedora Development system. Since this is a proprietary application, there is no way for any of us to fix the problem, or to even build it properly for this architecture. So, no Google Earth on this platform. Happily, the i386 Ubuntu system runs it just fine. Or not so fine; Google Earth is a little shaky there as well. The window is not always rendered properly, it occasionally decides to randomly roam in a [Screenshot] certain direction until stopped, and it locked up entirely once - while having grabbed the pointer and rendered the display useless, of course.

All that notwithstanding, Google Earth is a fun toy. Your editor started at his childhood home, and quickly located the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range - one of the most beautiful places on the planet; the result was the image shown on the right. Typing in "Venice, Italy" resulted in a rather ballistic-seeming flight across the ocean, yielding a gorgeous view of Piazza San Marco. One can almost make out individual [Screenshot] pigeons. The resolution of the available imagery varies, and there is not always much in the way of additional information, but there are very few spots on the planet which cannot be viewed at some scale. It can be difficult to turn it off and get some real work done.

There are those who have already started to complain about the non-free nature of this application. There is no doubt that a truly free version of Google Earth would be a great thing - imagine what the community could do, starting with a base like this. The simple fact is, however, that Google has not done us any harm by making a non-free Google Earth available. Those who do not want non-free software on their systems can simply refuse to install it. The rest of us can have some fun.

For those of us who want a free tool of this nature, one option would appear to be the WW2D project, which has posted some interesting screenshots. Unfortunately, your editor was unable to get enough of the project web site's attention to successfully download a copy. Also of interest is Earth3d. This application shows some real potential, though your editor found the navigation to be painful and, of course, the higher-resolution imagery is not freely available. Nonetheless, the initial work exists for the creation of a free planet viewer, if we truly want to create one.

Comments (54 posted)

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