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FSF passes collection plate for free Android clone Replicant

Donations sought to port free OS to more kit

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Updated The Free Software Foundation has launched a new fundraising program aimed at getting Replicant, the free software version of Google's Android smartphone OS, running on more devices.

Replicant – named after the androids in Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner (but not the Philip K. Dick story upon which the film is based) – is a fork of the Android source code launched by a group of hackers in 2010, with the goal of creating an Android distribution based strictly on free software.

Android is developed as an open source project, but that doesn't make it "free" by the FSF's definition. Although some of Google's Android code is released under the Gnu General Public License (GPL), and is therefore free software, much if it is released under the Apache License – which, though an open source license, does not meet the FSF's criteria for software freedom.*

Specifically, the Apache License does not require Google to release all of its source code – and indeed, it has withheld portions of it several times in the past. In fact, most of 2011 went by without any new source code releases from the Chocolate Factory, much to Android hackers' dismay.

Even worse from a free software perspective, every Android device contains some software that is entirely proprietary, the source code for which will likely never be released. "Most notably, nearly any component that touches the hardware directly is proprietary software," as the Replicant website observes.

On top of that, many Android devices ship with proprietary, closed source apps preinstalled. Often these are included in the factory firmware image and cannot be removed.

The Replicant project aims to address all of these issues, but doing so hasn't been easy. The initial release supported just one handset – the HTC Dream – and with the most recent release on Monday, the OS is now running on a total of ten devices.

Support for more kit is in the works, but part of the problem is that before the OS can be ported to a new device, the developers need a unit to work on. With new smartphones retailing for anywhere from $400 to $600 or more, that can be a tall order.

To help with the effort, the FSF has launched a new fundraising campaign under its Working Together for Free Software initiative, which previously has helped raise funds for other open source projects, including Gnu MediaGoblin and Gnu Octave.

"Donations will help us buy new devices and port Replicant to them as well as help us attend free software events to promote Replicant at," the project's Paul Kocialkowski said in a blog post on Friday. "Devices donations can be accepted as well but we carefully select the devices we want to work on, based on how much they respect freedom, so we might decline some offers."

In addition, Kocialkowski said, the project is particularly looking to recruit new developers to help in the porting efforts, as well as to help implement features that are still not working well on certain hardware. As it stands, he said, the team consists of just two part-time developers.

Unlike Kickstarter projects, the FSF's fundraising program has no minimum amount in mind. It's a strict, old-school donation effort – give $400 to $600 and the Replica team should be able to buy one new device and port the OS to it. Lesser amounts will contribute to the project's overall goals.

Donations are accepted via credit card, check, or money order in US dollars only, or wire transfer in any currency. Failing that, Bitcoin is also accepted. ®

* Update

The FSF wrote to clarify its position on the Apache License and Android. Specifically, the FSF would like it known that it does consider the Apache License a free software license, albeit a "lax, permissive" one.

But for software to be free, it must come with access to source code. During the period in 2011 when Google had not released the source code to Android 3.x and 4.x, those releases were considered proprietary software, as Richard Stallman wrote at the time.

Because the source code has since been made available, however, they are now considered free. The FSF has no other objection to the Apache License, and the goal of the Replicant project is not to replace the Apache-licensed portions of the Android stack – just the proprietary portions.

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