A bit of background
When Android was still in it’s infancy, almost every manufacturer implement proprietary software hoping the deliver a unique experience and differentiation from other manufactures. This was largely understandable given a lot of those manufactures gave up their own proprietary mobile operating system and felt the urge to differentiate in software to: Customers should buy into their ecosystem to remain loyal. But as time showed, their software was often inferior to Google’s offerings, sometimes buggy, slowly to pick up security and other os updates.
This prompted the creation of the Nexus and Google Experience lines: Top-Smartphones with an unmodified Android as delivered by Google – no bloatware, no skins, no replaced apps. Currently instances of Android flavours have far more in common to each other across manufacturers – and that is good think. Some smaller companies even promote delivering unmodified version of Android and companies like Motorola (and to a lesser extend Sony) are generally praised for their sublte to almost non-existant refining of Android as imagined by Google. And with Google Software constantly evolving, the need for added features from manufactures is smaller then some years ago.
Today, Android Lollipop is largely seen as the most polished and beautiful version of Android, finally on par with Apples iOS. Google has put increasing attention into user experience and it is very unlikely for smaller teams to improve substantially on this. This is not to say there is no room for small improvements, but they should focus on key areas.
The FP1 and it’s software.
When the Fairphone 1 was announced and later released, it featured some unique features like the “Enjoy Peace Widget”, the “Recent Apps Widget” and a customized Launcher – This customized version of Android was branded “Fairphone OS”. Fairphone also provided a “vanilla” version of Android. This is almost the version Google supplies, but there is a catch: Contrary to expectation, this is not AOSP (Android Open Source Project), then the unmodified, “vanilla” Version of Android goes by, but a already customized by MediaTek, chipset supplier of the first Fairphone. Other than that, the Fairphone software was set apart from other smartphones by to unique “features”: I comes sans Google Apps preinstalled and pre-rooted and features a custom branding.
Google Apps is a package of proprietary Google Services that allow you to use the full Android Ecosystem as imagined by Google by providing access to the “Play Store” and delivering the “Play Services”. The Play Store is the number one source for Android apps and the standard distribution platform. Play Services provided a set of tools for developers to plug-in, for example Google Cloud Messaging, which allows so-called push functionality for Apps. These are not required to use an Android device and a lot of Fairphone users live happily without them. Still they are so essential that most users expect them on their Android device. Commonly, what is meant by “Android-Smartphone” is a Android-based Software + the Google Apps. Therefore, the Fairphone Os provided a way to install these apps from day one. However, installation was cumbersome and error-prone and is a least a minor annoyance with each software update until today. Still, a lot of users a very happy to be given a choice and value their freedom towards using Google or not more than inconveniences introduced by the cumbersome installation.
A lot of operating systems know the concept of a superuser/root user: This users has elevated rights and access to the computers hard– and software to allowed to normal users. Typically, non-administrative applications are run as users with a limited access to prevent damage and malicious use like attacs. This is no different on Android, where typically only a very limited set of application that come bundled with the OS has elevated such rights, for example the Play Store and OS updating components. Users a not able to install applications requirering such rights, even if they explicitly want to. Some to not like being limited that way and see that as a restriction of their freedom. Root Access allows for very useful applications not possible otherwise, but it also poses a risk for novice users, as an application with root access can access and modify almost all parts of the system as well as users data stored on the device.
Apart from root-access, the Fairphone also comes with an unlocked bootloader by default. This is a perquisite for installing third party operating systems. Howeve, until today, no os suitable for daily use has been provided for the Fairphone.
The Fairphone features a custom ringtone, backgrounds and startup as well as charging animations. They do not affect the behaviour of the device in any way.
What makes the Fairphone so special?
I think the answer is obvious: The Fairphone is a model and reminder: It is possible to build attractive and usable devices while taking care of issues like social and environmental issues across the full lifecycle from sourcing of materials to longevity and repair-ability to second use and finally recycling. For me, the software used has never been the motivation to buy a Fairphone. I wanted to support that experiment and put pressure on other manufactures by setting a positive example. While large group of Fairphone users is heavenly invested in Open Source, i do not see this as a key area of Fairphone’s mission. More to that later, but for me, fairness was not about me, but the workers, the miners, their families and, in a more general sense, the environment.
I bought the Fairphone not for it’s Android software, even less for it’s customization, but to support that mission and setting an example: I am willing to pay a premium if i know the company i pay to put’s that money to good use.
The current software is dissapointing
To say it blunt: The FP1’s future does not look very bright, software wise. The mentioned Google Apps complications are alienating first time smartphone users as well as minor issues here and there. There is no outlook to ever get a major Android update what somehow contradicts the goal of longevity. Some features, promised before, like Bluetooh 4.0 support, important for activity trackers and smartwatches, will never arrive and as well as bugfixes. This is largely due to the way Android software updates are done, are process far more complicated then your usual OS X, Windows or Ubuntu update, the low volume of Fairphones (and with that, less supported from suppliers to Fairphone) and the choice of a cheap chipset from MediaTek. There is nothing to change about that. Would i buy a Fairphone again? Yes, definitly! Would i buy the FP1 again? Probably not.
A way forward
Fairphone has fixed a major problem with the FP1 already: It choose a popular, probably more expensive chipset for the next device. It increases volume and changed the manufacturer. It design a greater portion of the phone in-house promising better repairability. The next Fairphone might be a bit more expensive, but i will be more high-end promising better components, low-level software support and production quality. This is know from recent blog posts.
Software wise, only little is know about the next Fairphone. We know it will be Android based and we know the Fairphone is researching alternative open-source OSes like Jolla and Ubuntu. I would like to take the chance now and offer my thoughts about the software on the next smartphone.
A lean, almost unmodified Android
Preinstall Google Apps and drop root.
Now, this is going to be very controversial. But here is i why: I think Fairphone unique strenght is social responsibly life-cycle and transparency in production and sourcing. This is a pretty strong and unique offering. I found a lot of people willing to buy an Fairphone. But honestly, i could not recommend it to most due to it’s software issues. I think the first focus should be a working usable device the meets the expectations of general users and newcomers alike. One for that every computer magazins tipps work and that behaves similar to your friends devices. Preinstalled Google Apps are expected by most users, and they provide very good and partly unique features. This will make life of user and supporters easier.
Dropping root sounds crazy, but lets think about that again: Root access has almost no benefits for end users, but poses increased risks and incompatibilities with certain apps, especially for mobile banking and/or payments. The same goes for the bootloader, which is unlocked by default on our the devices currently. This has been this way from day one, still there is not a single usable custom operating system for the Fairphone, but dozens for devices like the Galaxy S3. So away with that!
These measures should improve the software for most users. But what about the small and passionate crowd of “Google-free” people? The privacy minded users of “Xposed”, the Hackers and thinkers say, with good right: If you can’t open it, you don’t own it? Here comes step three.
The unlocked alternative
Now, my position so far has been: Remove customization, root access and unlocked bootloader and preinstall Google Apps. This will surely alienate some very passionate and important community members. And it makes developers lives harder, be it for custome operating systems or ports or even software development. For them unlocked bootloaders and root makes the job easier or is necessary. Step: Provide a easy way to unlock the device and a plain, purely open source (apart from device drivers) AOSP based distribution.
This software will not be installed by default, but will require users to unlock their device and tinker a bit. It should be made as easy as possible, but it should also be clear: You are leaving a end users path: If you go here, you are willing to accept some inconveniences, maybe bugs and more. But you get an unmodified Android without Googles Apps and the means to tinker arround freely. If Fairphone provides such images for installation, the source of necessary components to build and compile this yourself, you will have laid the groundwork to enable a larger crowd of developers to go ahead and port software like CyanogenMod, Firefox OS or even Ubuntu and Jolla.
There are already manufacturors doing pretty much that, a great example is Sony with their Xperia Z range of devices. See their developer website to see what their doing. As much as Motorola set an example how to deliver plain Android, Sony does with developer relations. And i am pretty sure this will make up for the pre-installed Google Apps for all our Open-Source fans (count me in here!).
Fairphone is already and unique example in social responsibility. It does not need to go new ways in software development.
I propose Fairphone should:
- follow the example set by Motorola and drop most custom apps and os customisation keeping only the unique “Enjoy peace widget/app” and branding like the ringtone. No more Fairphone Launcher.
- Preinstall Google Apps and drop root as well as the unlocked bootloader for general users.
- Provide an AOSP image like Sony does for developers, very good documentation and all sources as well as easy ways to unlock the bootloader to cater the need’s of developers, thinkers and open-source fellows.
This was a crazy long post, now i am interested to hear what you think!