Matthew Garrett has been doing a bit of Saint Nick's job for him — checking to see who's naughty and nice for GPL compliance on Android tablets. The list comes a bit after Christmas, but it appears that many of the vendors shipping Android tablets deserve nothing but coal in their stockings.
Garrett, by day (or whenever it is he does his work hacking) is employed by Red Hat to work on power management. Garrett is also well-known for looking into GPL compliance on consumer devices. This time around he's put together a list of offending devices that ship the Linux kernel (as part of Android), yet fail to comply with the GPL by providing source code. If you have an Android tablet from Sylvania or Viewsonic, Smart Devices, a Panda Pad 2, a XPad or one of many other Android tablets from vendors that aren't household names, you've likely got a tablet that's infringing on the GPL. One of Viewsonic's tablets is listed as compliant, two aren't.
Skimming the list, the norm seems to be flouting the GPL rather than complying. Some vendors do get a thumbs up, though — and Garrett provides links to the source for those tablets. Barnes & Noble provides source for the Nook (color and greyscale). Samsung's Galaxy Tab is compliant, and Archos' family of Android tablets are all given the OK by Garrett. (One wonders why the Archos folks aren't doing more advertising, their line of tablets looks fairly interesting.)
The situation isn't good, though. Especially for the no-names. As Garrett puts it "it's pretty much a given" a tablet is not compliant if it's from "the ones you've never heard of." If you're dealing with such reputable names as "Buychinaelectronics" (no, I'm not giving them a link — and yes, that's how the name is spelled on the site) the vendor isn't supplying source. The tablet is probably crap as well, but that's another story. Or is it? I don't think so. Vendors who care about their products care about complying with the licenses too.
GPL compliance has always been an issue in embedded devices, and it's no shocker to see that the market is being flooded with non-compliant devices when most of them look to be rush jobs from no-name companies.
Why isn't Google doing more about this? Garrett answers this as well. Basically, while Google is distributing the kernel code, it's not the copyright holder of most of it. Google's kernel contributions are relatively small, considering how much it benefits from Linux. Red Hat, Novell, Intel, and IBM have far more code on these devices that's being infringed (remember that Google has largely used non-reciprocal licenses for the rest of the Android environment). Google also has a strong disincentive to go after infringers because it might not want to be seen going after Android OEMs — even those who are small-time, fly-by-nightish operations.
Even if you're not likely to ever muck with the source of a tablet, please do make sure you're buying from a vendor that is complying with the GPL. If not to show solidarity with the FOSS community, then consider it in your own self-interest. Vendors that are complying with the GPL are usually the planning a long-term investment in developing Linux/Android-based devices — not just trying to cash in by rushing something to market. I suspect if you lined up the tablets that are GPL compliant and tested them against the non-compliant devices, you'd find the GPL friendly line getting better ratings.
Expect to see a lot more of this in 2011. The explosion of Linux-based devices is going to make for a lot of GPL compliance work for organizations like the Software Freedom Conservancy and individuals like Garrett.
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier is a longtime free and open source software advocate. He has written for many publications, including Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many others.