F-Droid Free Software Repository: Interview with Ciaran Gultnieks

froid_feat

For users who chose Android over competing mobile operating systems because it was released under a free and open source license (Apache), or because they didn’t like the overbearing control exerted on them from certain smartphone manufacturers, it’s not hard to see how the existing Android marketplaces would leave a lot to be desired. These markets are full of applications which are closed source, have unclear licensing, contain advertisements, track their users, and other manners of nefarious deeds.

A free and open source operating system deserves to run free and open source applications, and Android users deserve a way to easily find and install those applications.

To that end, Ciaran Gultnieks founded F-Droid: an Android repository which features only free and open source software. F-Droid even goes so far as to filter out applications which are released under a FOSS license, but employ things like tracking and advertisements.

Free Software

The Powerbase:  Ciaran, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. To start, can you give our readers a bit of information about yourself?

Ciaran: I’m a programmer by trade, and by hobby. It’s something I’ve loved doing for the last 30 years, starting with a Sinclair ZX81. I started out in the games industry, and these days I work in the world of enterprise software by day, and tinker with various open source projects by night.

The Powerbase: How long have you been interested in free and open source software? Why do you think it’s so important?

Ciaran: The first time I actually removed Windows from a desktop machine and installed a GNU/Linux distro was around about 1996, but it was a long time after that before I started using it regularly, and even longer before I insisted on using Free Software exclusively on my own hardware.

It’s personally important to me because if something is wrong, I want to be able to fix it. Even if I don’t fix it, the knowledge that I could do so, or get someone else to do it for me, is good enough. The more you rely on computers, the more important this becomes, and today’s mobile devices are than small but powerful computers that can also make phone calls (or not maybe, if they’re tablets).

On a wider scale than just my own insistence on it, as computers become more and more intertwined in almost every aspect of people’s lives, I think it’s essential for the well-being of humanity that people are able to retain control of their own hardware and software, which is only possible with Free Software.

I try to avoid evangelising about it though – that sometimes seems futile to me, or even counterproductive. I got to where I am through many years of being bitten by proprietary software in all the possible ways it can do so. Maybe ultimately the same will happen in the wider population, or maybe not. My position is simply that this is how I do things on my machines.

So F-Droid is specifically not a “you should do it this way” project, it’s an “if you’re in the minority that care about this kind of thing, we hope you find it useful” project.

Also, to be clear, I’m not in the camp that thinks there’s anything unethical or wrong as such about proprietary software. Many people and organisations make an informed and intelligent decision to use it, it works for them, and that’s fine by me. Also it would be hypocritical of me to take that position as I’ve made my living almost entirely from it for all my adult life. I do think the world would be better off without proprietary software, but there are practical reasons why that’s not going to happen any time soon.

F-Droid

The Powerbase: What’s the goal of F-Droid? Why do we need another Android marketplace?

Ciaran:  I think the majority of people don’t need or want another. The goal of F-Droid is to cater for those that do. Specifically, people who want to only run free and open source software, and to a lesser extent people who prefer to. Also people who don’t want to be tracked (by the ‘marketplace’ itself, or the apps it distributes), or who want more control over what they install – for example, the simple and obvious case of “I don’t like this new version, I want to go back to the previous version” seems to be deliberately missing from Google Play.

The Powerbase:  The fact that F-Droid doesn’t track users is one of the key points of the service. Would you say this is the most desirable aspect of F-Droid for your users?

Ciaran: For some, yes. I doubt it’s right at the top of the list for most users, but at the same time it’s definitely an important thing to the majority.

The Powerbase:  What may not be immediately obvious to new users is that F-Droid actually compiles the applications distributed on the service, they are not binary builds as on all the other Android marketplaces. Why is this so important?

Ciaran: First off, I have to admit that this isn’t always the case – we have a minority of apps that are binaries supplied directly from the developers. Usually this is for technical reasons, or to put it another way, there are some apps our build system isn’t capable of building yet, but are too important to leave out. It’s always stated which are which, so it shouldn’t be too non-obvious.

That said, it’s extremely important that we do things this way – it’s the guarantee that the software you’re using corresponds exactly to source code that’s available and buildable. Outside the Android world you’d take this for granted, and in any case all GNU/Linux distros build and distribute software this way, so it can be taken for granted.

However, for whatever reason, for Android apps it’s incredibly common to see something promoted as Free Software, but then when you actually try to find the code you see that the only available source is for an old version from years back, or that in fact there’s all kinds of proprietary stuff sneaked in there. Analytics libraries, or spyware as I’d prefer to call them, are particularly common. It may be that some people choose to use free and open source software purely because they don’t have to pay for it, but for anyone doing so for any other reason (i.e. the audience of F-Droid), it’s a must that what you’re actually getting is FOSS. It’s a sad fact that if you get an  Android app from elsewhere that claims to be so, a very significant proportion of the time it’s not.

The Powerbase: F-Droid has certainly been a community effort; you list over 40 contributors on the site. Have you been happy with the response from the community so far?

Ciaran:  Yes, I’ve been amazed by the response. The actual number is way higher, since at the time of writing there have been 48 direct contributors to the source via git commits, and probably approaching the same number via translations. That doesn’t even take into account all the other ways people help out, so it’s actually shameful that only 40 are listed.

The Powerbase: Are you still looking for contributors? What can people do to help with the project?

Ciaran: Always. Despite that amazing response, it’s still a small volunteer project taking on a very large task. Anyone who shares the philosophy of the project can get involved with whatever skills they have.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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