Canonical is producing a version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution specifically for smartphones. All good nerds know this – and are, in most cases, at least a little interested in seeing this mobile platform available on readily available hardware.
An Open Source Linux distro for phones? Phones that we can actually buy? Yes, please. I'll take 12.
However, Richard Tynan, writing for PrivacyInternational.org, recently pointed out that the baseband – the firmware in a cellphone that does the actual "communicate with the cellular network" side of things – in Ubuntu-powered phones will remain closed source (and highly proprietary).
So, while Ubuntu itself is Open Source, the super-critical firmware on the phones will not be. This creates the immediate practical problem of leaving the information transmitted by your phone open to snooping by organizations that take advantage of issues in the Closed Source firmware. (Or, more maliciously, by organizations that have purposefully included such functionality within said firmware.)
This is, to say the least, a bummer. And Richard Tynan makes the point that this is a missed opportunity for Canonical to have required an Open Source baseband on the phones that ship with Ubuntu.
"If you read the catalogue of spy tools and digital weaponry provided to us by Edward Snowden, you'll see that firmware on your device is the NSA's best friend," Shuttleworth said in a recent blog post.
My take on all of this:
Having a Closed Source baseband is an obvious problem that needs to be addressed. But in order to fix this problem (and open up the code for this super-critical bit of software), we need companies that have a large amount of clout, in the smartphone market, to make it a priority.
Canonical (with Ubuntu) just doesn't have that clout yet. They're just now dipping their toes into the smartphone waters. But you know who does have that clout? Google.
Google has made a point of touting Open Source (at least sometimes), and they are the undisputed king of the smartphone operating system world. And yet I hear no big moves by Google to encourage phone manufacturers to utilize Open Source basebands, such as OsmocomBB.
So has Canonical missed an opportunity? No. Not yet. If (some may say "when") Ubuntu gains a critical amount of market share in the phone world, that will be their chance to pressure manufacturers to produce a truly Open Source phone. Until then, Canonical needs to continue to work within the world we have today.
Google, on the other hand, has missed this opportunity several times over. They need to hop on the Open Source and freedom-loving train. Tout suite.