Android isn't free software but the mobile operating system is better for developers than Microsoft's Windows Phone and Apple's iOS.
That's the view of GPL author and Free Software Foundation (FSF) founder Richard Stallman, who's cautioned developers on the perils of building code for Google's Android.
His argument, though, appears to contradict earlier statements from the FSF in which Android phone makers were accused of violating the GPL. Where there are alleged violations, Stallman appears to blame them on the terms afforded phone makers by the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) licence that cover large portions of Android.
Stallman has written in The Guardian that Android cannot be considered free because parts of the software are licensed under the ASF licence.
It's a somewhat predictable perspective given that the GPL licence that's used for the Linux component of Android and the Apache licence fundamentally differ.
The GPL requires you make code in your program available for re-distribution while Apache, often described as a business-friendly licence, does not require source code disclosure - which is why Stallman refuses to consider Android free software.
According to the great bearded one, Google's done right by the terms of the GPL-covered Linux component. He says:
"Google has complied with the requirements of the GNU General Public Licence for Linux, but the Apache licence on the rest of Android does not require source release. Google has said it will never publish the source code of Android 3.0 (aside from Linux), even though executables have been released to the public. Android 3.1 source code is also being withheld. Thus, Android 3, apart from Linux, is non-free software, pure and simple."
Android phone makers aren't in the FSF's good books: in August, the FSF said there'd been an uptick in the number of alleged violations of the GPL thanks to Android, some of which it called "convincing".
Even though the FSF has acted on GPL violations in the past, it's absolved itself of acting on Android, saying that only copyright holders could pursue violations.
Stallman complained in his opinion piece that the phone makers often don't release the source code for their Android builds.
"The GNU GPL requires them to distribute the code for their versions of Linux, if they comply," he said. "The rest of the code, under the lax Apache licence, does not require them [phone manufacturers] to release the source version that they really use."
The source in question is for executables built by the phone makers; he goes on to note that some executables are designed to stop people installing and using modified software on their phones.
For all its faults, Stallman calls Android "a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free-software portable phone". He adds, however: "There is a long way to go."
Android is a winner because it has momentum, with Google, handset makers and application developers lining up behind it. Stallman points to the hard work ahead for an implementation of Android called Replicant that's more in keeping with his dream for free software and has been licensed "mostly" under version 2 of the GPL.
"Even though the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smart phones, they cannot be said to respect your freedom," he said. ®