How free is the N900?
2010-01-25
3 minutes read

Lucas asks about how free the N900 is, whether he can download and recompile and reflash. I’ll try to answer some of those questions.

No, you can’t download all the source. Part of it is just not open. I am not privy to Nokia’s decisions on why or why not to open up, but it seems like the user interface bits are only partially open. Hildon itself is open so you can poke at widgets and see how those work. The address book is not open. The telepathy component that talks to the cellular modem is not open.

As for having to accept EULAs, I honestly don’t remember accepting one of those, but I’m not going to say there are none. There’s at least one which is every time you install a package where you have to check a box saying “Yes, I know this package is third party and will not sue Nokia if it causes my house to burn down, my wife to divorce me or causes somebody to steal the car”. It’s annoying, but I’m willing to live with it.

The contents of apt’s sources.list is:

deb https://downloads.maemo.nokia.com/fremantle/ssu/apps/ ./ 
deb https://downloads.maemo.nokia.com/fremantle/ssu/mr0 ./ 
deb https://downloads.maemo.nokia.com/fremantle/ovi/ ./ 
deb http://repository.maemo.org/extras/ fremantle free non-free
deb http://repository.maemo.org/extras-devel/ fremantle free non-free

(technically, it comes from /etc/apt/sources.list.d/hildon-application-manager.list, not sources.list.)

I believe the built-in applications are generally not free, so rebuilding everything that is free will for instance leave you without any address book UI, the built-in map application or camera. Sadly, the X driver is also proprietary, so you won’t be able to see anything either.

I don’t think you can usefully install another free distro on the N900. You might be able to, at some point, assuming somebody goes to the effort.

The last question is “- Besides the non-free telephony stack, are there any other “antifeatures” I should be aware of?“. The telephony stack is implemented around Telepathy, which is LGPL-ed free software. While it’s correct that telepathy-ring (which talks to the cellular modem), the call UI and most of the address book are proprietary, the rest of Telepathy is free. There are SIP and XMPP connection managers that are free, and you can install more connection managers for MSN, IRC and so on.

Also, I think it’s important to emphasise that the telephony stack does not contain any antifeatures. The closest thing you would be able to find is probably the restriction to one active and one held call at the same time, but as one of the developers said: “That’s to prevent the UI from going mad”.

While I like to tout the N900 as a free phone, it is in no way completely free. Large parts of it are free, and almost as importantly: most of the programming interfaces are free and at least somewhat documented, so if somebody wants to replace the built-in camera application with a free one, they can replace the DBus interface that the camera app provides. Ditto for maps applications, the address book and so on.

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