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Review of the Android mobile phone operating system (HTC Wildfire)

HTC Wildfire - running the Android (Linux) operating systemIt's Free! It's not about the cost, it's about being free!

Not another mobile phone review

This isn't a review about a mobile phone handset - Google shows that there are already about 2 million of those for this model1, and it's not just a review about the Android operating system - there are about 165 million of those 2. This is a look at the Android mobile phone operating system and how it fits in with Linux and the principles of freedom on which Linux is based. There's less than 200 thousand of those 3 - hopefully this will provide something a bit different.

The phone I have is a HTC Wildfire running Android. This came free on Virgin Media on a relatively low cost monthly contract. For comparison I have had a smartphone for sometime already. I have Blackberry Bold 9700 which I use for work, but what I really wanted was an Android based phone as Android is based on Linux the Free and Open Source operating system.

This review is about the Android operating system and why I think we should all look for the Free option when suitable.

It's Free - so why did I need to take out a pay monthly contract?

The phone consists a hardware and a software element. The hardware is the physical bit you pick up and handle and put to your ear to listen to and the software is the computer code that runs on the phone to make it work. It's just the software an in particular the operating system (that's the most important bit as it doesn't do anything without an operating system) that is free.

Also I'm not necessarily talking about free to buy - this is free as in Freedom.

Not free - I thought you said it was free?

There is more important things than just money. At least that's what I keep trying to tell my bank manager...

Seriously though this is about Freedom, about being able to do what you want and not what someone has given you permission to do. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) defines Freedom as being able to run the programme for any purpose, being able to study and change it to function as you wish, being allowed to redistribute, and to distribute modified versions. This is the opposite of what is normally allowed by commercial software and where software is licensed to protect those rights then it is normally termed as copyleft as the opposite rather than copyright.

As an example the Windows End User License Agreement (EULA) is full of restrictions and surrendering of rights. The Windows 7 EULA is available here. The home edition is 12 pages long on its own and then refers certain services to other license agreements (eg. TV listings) and certain software to their own license agreements. By agreeing to the Windows 7 EULA (otherwise you can't run Windows) you give up hope to the conditions of free software and consent to many other things. For example "you consent to the transmission of [certain] information" and you agree that Microsoft can update your firmware for certain hardware.

Note that the services you sign up to will normally have a similar license agreement in terms of privacy etc., but they will not take away any of the freedoms of the software.

But I'm not a programmer why should I care about these freedoms?

Whilst the freedoms are obviously important for programmers they should be important for everyone. To quote from Richard Stallman (founder of the Free Software Foundation) "They are essential, not just for the individual users' sake, but for society as a whole because they promote social solidarity—that is, sharing and cooperation. They become even more important as our culture and life activities are increasingly digitized. In a world of digital sounds, images, and words, free software becomes increasingly essential for freedom in general."

My views are a bit more liberal than those of the FSF, but I see the freedoms as being essential to preventing vendor lock-in and to keeping my data free in addition to the benefits of being able to improve and develop the software.

But you need to be a geek to use Linux, don't you?

That may have been the case in the 1990s when I first started using Linux, but a lot has changed since then. The PC versions of Linux are just as easy to use as any other operating system and Android even more so. There's a good chance that you've got something running Linux already and you don't even know it. That could be a sat-nav, wireless router, set-top box, Blueray player or even TV.

So what's Android like then?

Android on the mobile phone looks good, it is touch sensitive, the scrolling is smooth and the soft keyboard is great. In fact I'm particularly impressed with the keyboard, as that is the one feature on the Blackberry that I thought I'd miss. I now realise that done well (as on the Android) a keyboard can be even better than that on the Blackberry.
I was always put off from touch keyboards after the one on the TomTom as I found I would accidentally press the wrong key. Android overcomes this by looking at alternative words that match the typed gibberish and make it easy to select the correct word; in fact in most cases it correctly guesses and corrects without needing so much as an extra keypress. I'm not sure about doing lots of typing (I'm a touch typist and so find it frustrating when I have lots of typing without having a proper keyboard), but for the bits I've done so far (Facebook status updates and SMS messages) have been good.

It's importing capability is great (copying most details from my old Nokia) and it makes a great job of integrating contacts from multiple sources (Mobile phone, Google address book, Facebook etc.).

Any bad points?

There's a few things that can be improved. My biggest gripe is the Market place, but I'll come onto that in a minute.

The battery life is not particularly good, but that's due to the number of things it's doing in the background. It's searching and using WiFi (Internet access at home), Bluetooth (hands-free), 3G (high speed mobile network access), 1G/2G mobile phone signals (when 3G is not available). It uses that to provide realtime feeds from social networking and show the current and future weather and various other things. I've also been hitting it with the odd web access / check on my social networks and taking photos etc. Many of the features can be switched off to conserve battery life, but at the loss of some functionality (until turned back on again). At the moment I'm happy with charging every couple of days, but if I use it whilst away from a charger for an extended period then it's time to start turning some services off.

I also find the picture messaging infuriating. I think it may be down to the service provider. I never had any problems with a pre-smartphone Nokia on Orange, but since moving to the HTC Wildifre on Virgin I know get a text with a Link which means that I have to go to a website to view the picture. Not only that but the website gives me an error because I'm not using Internet Explorer (although it's still usable just). There can be no excuse for such a poor capability on such a powerful phone with 3G access and a service provided by a mobile phone provider, but I also get a similar thing with my Blackberry on O2. Perhaps it's the mobile phone companies that don't know how to keep up with the technology they are selling. How can I interact in real time with the social network sites and even watch videos over the Internet via youtube, but can't receive a simple photo sent from another identical phone on the same network. VirginMobile get your act together with picture messaging - please!

What were you saying about the MarketPlace not being any good?

Actually that's not what I said. I think the Market Place is good, it's just not in with the community Free software ethos that the operating system is. The market place is a great way to install software with a few clicks. Well I say great - Linux has had something similar for years (mainly for free software), but it was a big new thing when Appled added something similar to the iPhone along with a way of charging money for software.

For most users you just click on the market place icon, choose an application, pay (if appropriate) and then it downloads and installs to the phone. You can even click install on the application on the Android Market website and it gets installed to the phone (as if by magic).

The gripe I have is that it doesn't distinguish between Free (as in Freedom) software and non-free software. It does split software into free (as in money) vs. pay-for software, but I want to know whether the software is truly Free. I don't get too hung-up about whether software is Free but I like to investigate what Free software is available before I install something that is proprietary (whether there is a charge or not). I will still consider purchasing software in certain circumstances, but I think more should be done to encourage Free software to be available and identifiable. I think this is one way that Google's commercial interests cast a shadow on the Free operating system.

Not that I'm having a go at Google. I guess they have to make their money somewhere, and what they contribute through providing a Free and Open Source operating system is in a completely different league to the likes of Apple and Microsoft. Whilst there are other SmartPhone operating systems based on Linux / Free Open Source software (eg. MeeGo, LiMo, webOS, Maemo), Google is the one company that has managed to make a Linux Mobile Phone operating system that works, works well and it is truly a pleasure to use - that operating system is Android.

So you like it then?

I certainly do. I was not really that bothered about getting a new smartphone, but now I've got one I don't know why I left it so long. Actually I do it's because the handset finally reached a low enough "pay monthly" cost that it was worth switching, but that's a different story. Android is a great operating system and has the ability to make Linux and Free software available to a group of users that don't care about what is running under the covers or the Freedoms that it brings with it.

I think they should care, but if they don't then that's their choice and they are free to have their own opinions - that's what freedom is all about.

A great operating system for smart mobile phones.

At the time of writing it appears that Android has now taken the lead as the most popular smartphone operating system in the US and it looks set to gain in popularity.


1 - Based on number of hits in a Google Search on keywords "Review HTC Wildfire"*
2 - Based on number of hits in a Google Search on keywords "Review Android"*
3 - Based on number of hits in a Google Search on keywords "review android linux freedom gpl"*
* - These searches will include duplicates and sites using those same words in a different context

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