No software is perfect, and most users happen to have some itches they would like to scratch on them. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t thought some day “why can’t that software do <some feature>”. But not everybody is able to scratch these itches. For a starter, most people aren’t developers, or aren’t able to modify source code to reach some known goal, be it fixing a bug or implementing a missing feature.
But even when they are able to do so, most applications can’t be fixed or improved easily: most widespread applications are still proprietary software where access to the source code is either impossible or prohibitively expensive. That’s the good thing about open source and free software: you are able to itch these scratches yourself ; and as a free software user and developer, I often do so in the software I use.
I must say it’s even frustrating when you are used to this possibility but end up on damn stupid bugs or limitations you can’t fix in proprietary software. I have quite a bunch of such examples, the most recent ones being with VMware ESX, but that’s another story.
Mobile phones are everywhere nowadays. In some countries, there are even more mobile phones than people. A huge amount of people are using them daily. Or maybe should I say “endure”.
When you go to shop for a laptop, digital camera, or digital portable music player, you can find demonstration models you can fiddle with, see what the user interface looks like, how it behaves, see if whatever feature you like on such devices is present and how easily you can do what you want.
With a mobile phone, you don’t have all that (at least in France and Japan, where I experienced this). You’re lucky if one of the sellers owns the exact model you’d like to test and lends it to you for a minute. Most of the time, the “thing” to watch is a plastic model, not even remotely related to the real thing in colour, weight… and obviously, it has as much use as a brick (not even so, actually, as you can’t, for instance, break windows with it). And most of the time, you end up regretting the choice you made, because the UI is so unuseable, or so slow after a while, or so buggy, etc.
More and more phones nowadays have multimedia as their main feature. While it can be nice, especially when you see how some are pretty good at it, and when you consider it avoids you to carry both a phone and a multimedia device. Sadly, they usually forget to be good phones, too.
Sometimes even, multimedia(-related) features are crippled by the carriers. As an example, my phone, while able to read mp3 music, has been limited by the carrier to refuse to use them as ring tones, while, according to the maker and to various forums, the phone is perfectly able to do so. It’s even worse than that, because even converted as 3gp, which it otherwise allows as ring tones if you download them at a ridiculous price, it still doesn’t allow to put your music as a ring tone. You got it, features in phones are also limited for big money-making. Fortunately, there is a hole in my phone where I can set a 3gp as ring tone if I do it from the music player instead of the file browser.
Most articles I read about Android, or the iPhone SDK, relate how they are great opportunities to enable developers to provide nice applications for users, using the provided frameworks. But the thing is : they’re only applications. An application is not the core of the phone. An application won’t take care of ring tones, or vibration types.
And that’s what open source in mobile phones should also allow users to do. That’s what it all should be about. As a user and free-software developer, I would like to enhance my phone like I can enhance my laptop.
For instance, my phone will only allow crappy polyphonic tones for SMS or e-mail reception. Digital music is only available when you receive a call. Why ? There is obviously nothing preventing digital musing when receiving SMS or e-mail, except a stupid software restriction that could be fixed if the firmware were open-source.
Very few phones in France appear to allow japanese input, let alone proper display of japanese characters in e-mail or on the web. My previous phone was able to display japanese correctly. My current phone doesn’t. Neither of them is able to input japanese (which is not unexpected in France, actually). I know the iPhone does both. Anyways, these are informations very hard to get a hand on before buying a model, and something that open-source would allow me to fix. Even better, it would allow me to take the pieces from the asian version of the same (or similar) phone which probably has the functionality.
The phone I had when I was living in Japan had a nice feature that I haven’t seen in any phone in France (but again, this kind of information is very hard to get): different vibration types. For example, you had a vibration type making short vibrations, another one long vibrations, yet another one 3 short vibrations, a short pause, then 3 short vibrations again, etc. This is very useful when you disable ring tones during a meeting or some other occasions where you don’t want to bother the people around you with your phone ringing: depending on how the phone vibrates, you know whether you have to take the call or can ignore it, or if it’s only an e-mail, without taking a look at the phone. Again, an open-source firmware would allow me to implement this.
I’m sad so much of what open-source can bring to mobile phones is so badly publicized.
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