This year a slew of companies have launched competing Android tablet devices. A lot of rhetoric has been spun about how Android’s open source ecosystem gives manufacturers and consumers an advantage.

Android is open source; it can be liberally extended to incorporate new cutting edge technologies as they emerge. The platform will continue to evolve as the developer community works together to build innovative mobile applications. (Open Handset Alliance)

Unfortunately, the current crop of Android tablets aren’t nurturing open source at all.

Android Tablets

With the exception of Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader, a device that isn’t even really a tablet, I couldn’t find a single EDIT: I found one tablet manufacturer who was complying with the minimum of their legal open source requirements under GNU GPL. Let alone supporting community development.

Manufacturer Based In Tablets GPL Compliant Sources Available
Apad China 1+ No No
Archos France 2 Yes (see caveats below) Yes
Barnes & Noble United States 1 Yes Yes
Eken Group China 4+ No Partial
(see below)
Gome China 1 No Partial
(see below)
Moonse China 1+ No No
Pandigital United States 1 No (may change) ?
Smart Devices China 5 No Community

EDIT 2/9: Benmars posted in the comments that Archos have now released GPL source code for the Archos 7 Home Tablet. This looks to be a full kernel source release for the Rockchip RK28xx SoC, and even includes includes a prebuilt linux-x86 cross-compiler toolchain. Thank you Archos!

EDIT 31/7: In the comments, xauieous points out that while Archos have released GPL source for the ARM11/OMAP2 based “Archos 5 Internet Tablet” (aka Archos Generation 7), they are not complying with GPL for the ARM9 based “Archos 7 Home Tablet”. The contents of the “Generation 7” kernel tarball seem to bear this out. Xauieous claims Rockchip are holding out on the source for the Archos 9 Home Tablet, same as Apad.

Also, personal note to Archos: Please get a less confusing naming scheme!

EDIT 28/7: Courtesy Harald Welte @ VIA, there’s been a source drop of kernel source for WM8505-based tablets (Eken M001,M003,Gome FlyTouch, etc.) Some parts (video, SD/MMC drivers) are still binary only, Harald says he’s talking to VIA about it.

EDIT 26/7: Zebul posted a comment and drew my attention back to Archos’ GPL download section. I originally thought these were all just media player firmwares, but it turns out “Archos Generation 7” means the “Archos 5 Internet Tablet” and this tarball is a full GPL source release. Well done Archos! To their detriment, the binary firmware does not contain any obvious GPL mention – and this may mean they are still in technical breach of the GPL. The manual doesn’t mention anything either. But it’s still streets ahead of the others. Yay Archos!

(EDIT: I posted some details here. Please leave a comment if I’ve missed any tablets, or any source releases.)

What’s this GPL?

The GNU General Public License is a “copyleft” software license. Manufacturers releasing products with GPL licensed code, like the Linux kernel that underpins Android, are required to make their changes available in source code form.

Android itself isn’t GPL. Its open source Apache license does not mandate that source code has to be made available. However, all Android systems include the Linux kernel at minimum, and may also include other GPL-licensed pieces of software that are not part of the base Android distribution.

GPL source releases for these kernels make it easier for developers to build alternative operating systems, Android or otherwise, to run on the tablet hardware. It also allows improvements and changes to flow back “upstream” to the original software authors.

Why should consumers care?

The average tablet buyer isn’t an open source developer. However, having healthy open source releases means future support for these devices is guaranteed. Currently, projects like CyanogenMod make new improvements available to old Android phones whose manufacturers have already moved on. Similar community improvements could make new releases available on tablets, even though manufacturers are no longer supporting them.

Often, community Android releases are better than the original manufacturer’s. Slatedroid & ECOTOX have been releasing customised Android versions for the Eken M001 tablet which are both faster and support more features than the OEM release. Having kernel source available can only serve to make these releases better. For the Nook e-reader, community software releases allow you to view more ebook formats on your Nook, and even add totally unexpected features like Pandora Internet Radio.

Why should tablet manufacturers care?

Most manufacturers seem to be stuck in the “vendor” mindset that their hardware should remain entirely under their control, and that anyone else working on it is a problem.

However, it seems like community development almost always adds value to the hardware by extending it and adding more features. Especially in the tablet arena where there are no carriers to insist on platform lockdown to support their business model, an open platform doesn’t seem like it carries any significant drawbacks.

Some companies, particularly the smaller Chinese ones, appear to be concerned about competitors ripping their software off into compatible hardware. From what we’ve seen with the Eken M001 though, it doesn’t seem like source availability – especially kernel source – would do much to change the situation.

Outside of e-readers, there aren’t any companies competing on custom software anyhow: for the most part the software is vanilla Android, and competition is on performance, specifications, and especially price. This seems to make an even bigger opportunity for a clever manufacturer to embrace community open-source development, and differentiate themselves from all the “me too” Android clones without incurring any actual R&D cost.

What about chipset manufacturers?

A lot of kernel development for these devices is done by the original chipset manufacturers themselves. For example, it seems like VIA authored and compiled the kernels found in all devices based on the WM8505 chipset (including Eken’s tablets and some others..) It seems like the same story is true for Rockchip, who make the chipset used in the iRobot APad & Moonse E-7001.

Chipset manufacturers aren’t required to release GPL source code to the public, provided they send sources alongside any GPL software that goes to the device manufacturer. VIA has so far chosen this path, stating all sources are released to device manufacturers (although Eken has claimed differently at least once.) In the case of RockChip, manufacturers claim RockChip isn’t even doing that much and are violating GPL themselves (see first comment).

In addition, chipset manufacturers may sometimes author custom kernel modules or other components that are not GPL licensed at all. For example, Samsung have a video acceleration kernel module that is included in the firmware for the SmartQ tablet range. These components are normally not open sourced at all.

I can think of three reasons which chipset manufacturers do not embrace open source. One is that it is simpler not to. Another is that they charge device manufacturers for access to their SDK, and preemptively releasing source takes away that revenue stream (although possibly at the expense of extra hardware sales.) The last is that they are concerned about protection of their intellectual property, although this seems unnecessary given that most of their trade secrets are captured in the hardware itself, which is in turn protected by patents.

What about Google?

Google is in an interesting position here. On the one hand, they have worked hard to make sure that above the kernel layer Android is not GPL licensed. This serves to calm worried manufacturers threatened by the idea of having to release source. It seems, sadly, like a necessary step in order for Android to receive the kind of market prominence that Google wants for it.

On the other hand, it seems hypocritical for Google to tout Android’s “open source” credentials when it seems so clear that most companies profiting from it are completely oblivious, maybe even antagonistic, to open source.

I think there may be things Google could do to encourage manufacturers to be more friendly (or at least legally compliant) with open source, without scaring them off. An idea that springs to mind, especially now Google seem to be out of the device business, is promotion & accreditation of open source friendly manufacturers who receive extra kudos and promotion from Google in exchange for giving back to the community. Some kind of base level accreditation for companies who do not violate GPL, and additional incentives for companies who give back extra to the community.

Where to from here?

There are a lot more Android devices on the horizon, from a variety of manufacturers. It is my sincere hope that, especially following the growing buzz around “open source hardware”, at least one chipset or device manufacturer decides to make a break from the pack and announce “open source friendly products & manufacturing” that includes supporting community development.

Until then, if you care about open source you may actually be better off buying an iPad than many of the devices listed above. At least Apple comply with GPL and contribute back to the open source projects that they benefit from!

54 thoughts on “The Sad State of Open Source in Android tablets

  1. There is another reason vendors might not release their source. If they’ve ripped it off from another company or licensed the rights to use code but not the rights to release it. The threat of another company coming down on them with lawyers is much greater than the threat of free software authors, despite the efforts of groups like GPL-violations.

  2. Even if the companies comply with the GPL you still have the fact that the android driver-like-libs for things like the touchscreen, mpeg accelerator and other features are not open at all due to the horrible copytheft license that Google uses: Apache 2 License. This license means that these manufacturers will simply lock users out and not share at all.

  3. Thanks for posting this.

    The smartq community has been crippled by the lack of source compliance.

    I’m sorry I bought one.

  4. You should really contact the The Software Freedom Law Center and , they’re both great at getting this stuff out into the open

  5. I hope that one day, tablets and handsets will be similar to PCs in that hardware and software is decoupled. Woildn’t it be great to be able to install Android on a phone bundlet with Windows Mobile?

  6. “At least Apple comply with GPL and contribute back to the open source projects that they benefit from!”

    That sentence itself is mostly true, however, giving the impression that Apple is some friend of ‘open source’ needs some qualification.

    Yes Apple created WebKit.
    No Apple do not have an ‘open source’ operating system. Neither iOS or OSX have any intention of being ‘open source’. The phone operating systems consists of closed binaries, that you certainly cannot install on any self build phone unless you want to be pursued by and crushed by Apple’s legal team.

    You don’t even get to ‘choose’ your operating system on the iPhone. Every iPhone 3G user was just railroaded into a full operating system update that made their phones work slower.
    ( )

    No! Apple take ‘evasive manoeuvres’ every time an open source project is created to read and work with iPod playlists and manage iPods.

    Long and short of it with Apple is … if anything ‘open source’ or otherwise is seen to challenge iTunes then it is immediately killed.

    If I had to describe Apple and ‘open source’, I’d have to say…

    “Apple tolerate ‘open source’ whilst it is kept well away from any important business”

  7. 2Adam: This is classic case of discounting long-term threat over short-term one. Or may be they are THIS clueless?

    GPL is not very forgiving license as far as violators are concerned: one strike – and you are out. Read the paragraph 4 of GPLv2 or paragraph 8 of GPLv3. If you sell the device then any violations found in it in three year time can make ALL your linux-based devices illegal (if the device is older you can argue that three year offer expired).

    Single proven and unfixed linux kernel violation can make it impossible to legally use linux kernel in ANY device EVER AGAIN.

  8. Gary – I admit the Apple sentence was a bit provocative.

    I’m not suggesting Apple are the best friend of open source, just that at least they are honest about their closedness.

    “You don’t even get to ‘choose’ your operating system on the iPhone.”

    That’s the thing – you don’t get to choose your operating system on these devices. You have one binary Linux kernel, one binary version of Android, and the chances of anyone other than the manufacturer releasing a fully functional version of a different OS is essentially the same as releasing an alternative OS on the iPhone – in both cases you have to start from scratch if you don’t have kernel source with a Board Support Package. Take a look at my blog for my experiences investigating Debian and/or Android 2.x on the Eken M001.

  9. Zebul666 – you are actually onto something!

    I’d seen that section before, and the “ARCHOS Generation 5” is actually a media player not an Android device, which led me to believe these were all media player firmwares.

    However I now checked again and the “ARCHOS Generation 7” is the source code for the “ARCHOS 5 Internet Tablet”. I’d missed it because I didn’t expect it would have the number 7 associated with it! Excellent!

    Will amend, thanks for drawing this to my attention. If you’re interested in the other steps I used to investigate, there’s a link in the EDIT section under the table.

  10. Wow,

    This page is incredibly unreadable.

    Please use black ink on white paper or something close, or (maybe this is the problem) you left some kind of antireflective coating all over the page.


  11. I think Tablets do have a future, especially with some good connectivity to the cloud. The issue will be battery life (iPad) and productivity (NOT iPad). The last one is critical to spur the mass market – the issue they all face is cannibalization of lower end laptops and netbooks. By mass market I mean 100m units – NOT 3-5m units.

    As for Android being Open Source – not quite. Big chunks are, until you need to get serious and then things go into secret classes where only the privileged have access (OEM’s). Android is a work in progress – new revs increase uncertainty which makes people nervous. Customers like stability over cool new features.

  12. I’m much more concerned with vendors who castrate Android in ways that limit access to community developed (open source) applications. One major ‘droid phone vendor tricked the phone so it won’t enable apps that don’t come through their app-store [is that an Apple(tm) service mark?].

    If a company uses GPL or similar licensed components, they ought to comply with the terms of that license. If they don’t comply, enforcement measures are appropriate. If they modify GPL or similar code to lock-out applications for any reason, GPL says those mods ought to be available for public view.

    ~~~ 0;-Dan

  13. Apple is a great open source company. Anyone saying otherwise simply doesn’t know the facts.

    The Web browser core in every tablet mentioned on this page and pretty much every ARM device comes from an Apple open source project.

    Bonjour is another Apple open source project that is widely-used.

    The open source QuickTime Streaming Server is the most popular streaming server … on Linux.

    The kernel of OS X is open source. That is what is under iOS. So yes, iPad is running on an open source kernel. Same exact kernel from the Mac.

    Apple is by far the most open source friendly name brand PC. If you go into an Apple Store and buy a Mac, you will get BSD, Apache, PHP, Python, Perl, Ruby, X-Windows, WebKit, Bonjour, and many, many other open source projects. If you go to HP or Dell or Sony or Toshiba instead, then you get zero open source projects. On the Mac, you also get a boot loader that will happily boot off external disks with Linux or other operating system on there. Mac OS is also happy to network with Linux and other systems using standard protocols.

    And yes, you get to choose your operating system on iPad, iPhone, iPod. By buying one of those devices, you choose iOS. The hardware is as irrelevant as a CD or DVD was years ago. It’s just a box for the bits. Saying you want another OS on iPad is like saying you want another OS on your Windows Ultimate DVD. If you want a Linux tablet, buy a tablet with Linux on it, like all of the ones mentioned on this page.

    > Yes Apple created WebKit.

    End of story. This negates your entire argument against Apple as open source citizen. WebKit is enough. It’s the browser core in every tablet mentioned on this page, and every Android device, in Google Chrome, in Palm, and Blackberry, and Nokia, in Adobe AIR, and of course in Apple devices. It brought desktop class Web browsing to mobiles and to ARM. Microsoft is copying it right now for IE9. None of your petty biases are a match for what Apple accomplished with WebKit.

  14. If you don’t like background style of web page because it is hard to read, distracting… In Firefox drop down menu, click on View, Page Style, and select No Style. Later you can enable basic page style for other web pages. Old Netscape let you easily change just back ground image or color.

  15. This is exactly why I have not jumped on the Android bandwagon and am waiting for some hardware that will run Meego. Great article here. Keep up the great work :)

  16. : ROGER said:
    : If you don’t like background style of web page because it is hard to read, distracting… In Firefox drop down menu, click on View, Page Style, and select(etc)


    If the author wants his stuff to be read, he should not make the reader go through hoops.

    Use clear and understandable English (or the appropriate local language), make the ideas clear, make the page readable. I have 53,539 other pages to read and unless the author is offering free money somewhere… well, maybe he *is*. But I don’t have the time to decipher this.

  17. David & Malte,

    Thanks for the feedback about the contrast. I’ve tweaked the styles so they now exceed the W3C brightness recommendation for usability. Please let me know if it’s not enough.

    However you may also want to adjust your monitor’s gamma. Although you’re right that this site was below the borderline, I bet it’s not set right. :).

    – Angus

  18. Hamranhansenhansen get over yourself – jeez

    Correct me if my paraphrasing is incorrect but I think you just said

    “Because Apple started the Webkit project it is okay for them to act like dicks in every other bit of software they work on”

    I disagree.

    I also would ask you to think for a minute about who else has contributed to webkit in the last five years.
    Google? Many open source coders? The Gnome project?
    Certainly you are not claiming that Apple is the only contributor to webkit these days?

    Let me know when you hear the newsflash that Apple open sourced iTunes…hey if it is such a great piece of software then they must
    be just dying to repeat the experience of webkit and ‘open source’ it?

  19. Just to throw this out there:

    Webkit is a fork of KHTML. KHTML is the rendering engine for Konqueror, KDE’s browser. WebKit, being based on the LGPL licensed KHTML means they have little choice – they must distribute the modified parts of KHTML.

    Granted – they do actually conform to (my laymans interpretation of) the LGPL, and they could have chosen to write their own rendering engine from scratch instead of using an already existing open source project. So they aren’t completely hostile to open source. But at the same time, is this any more than conforming to a license?

  20. Hi Angus,

    This is more readable but still not great. I appreciate that you are paying attention and willing to make at least some change.

    I have to doubt that it’s related to anything I have set up, because I don’t have this trouble more than, say, once a month at other websites.

    We’ve used black-on-white so long we’ve probably evolved to read it more easily. :-) Sometimes old-fashioned means “This still works.” For an example see the chapter about architecture awards in _Design of Everyday Things_.

    Thanks —


  21. David,

    Fair point, but you do know a lot of people run light on dark all over, though? I have Ubuntu Lucid on my work & home desktops and it’s default theme is light-on-dark for all the UI elements, I run all my terminals and my emacs light-on-dark, I even used to the use the “invert” key on my Mac sometimes to read large bodies of text. :)

    Nevertheless, I’m not married to this look – it’s just a random WordPress theme. I may look into finding something totally different (and simple.)

    – Angus

  22. Hamranhansenhansen

    >The Web browser core in every tablet mentioned on this page and
    >pretty much every ARM device comes from an Apple open source project.

    Webkit is based on KHTML. Apple got off onto a bad start with the KHTML people, they didn’t recontribute back to KHTML and when they did it was such a manner that made it difficult to incorporate Apple’s changes back into KHTML.

    >The kernel of OS X is open source. That is what is under iOS.
    This is a classic case of Apple taking advantage of opensource and not contributing (much) back. It is based on the a BSD kernel under the BSD license which allows people to make use of the code without any obligation to give anything back. That’s exactly the kind of opensource Apple likes!

  23. I do not agree that apple is open source friendly at all. They prevent people from building iPhone applications on anything other than a mac running OSX. And even then they prevent people from running the application they build unless you join the $99 a year club. Even then you cannot distribute the application unless you pass their draconian tests that include not using API that they reserved for themselves and the application cannot compete with their own applications.

    Nor can you install a new build of the Operating system. What’s good about open source you cannot use on any usable way?

    You can add that they comply with opensorce at their own schedule. If the OS and tools have a new version the code can take months before becoming available. By then a newer version is usually out.


    The Archos 7 Home Tablet, based on the same chipset as the Apad, has not complied to the GPL. Rockchip is the one stopping the source code from being released.

    You wont see the GPL required source code for it until more people like you write about it.

    Please amend your article. Thanks.

  25. Thank you for posting xaueious.

    It looks like you are right, the kernel sources for the “Generation 7” are for OMAP2, which is an ARM11 and the “Archos 7 Home Tablet” is apparently an ARM9 – as you say.

    I have to say Archos are not making this easy with their product naming scheme, it’s all completely confusing.

    Will amend the article.

    – Angus

  26. Kernel sources are not only dependent on the ODM, but also on the chipset manufacturer. It boils down to the chipset manufacturer if the ODM is a small firm and has no leverage of the chipset manufacturer, and the chipset manufacturer has not had a history of GPL compliance in the past.

    VIA is a big company, so you guys got lucky there. As for Telechips, Rockchip, and Zenithink, I don’t think we are going to see anything from these companies for a while.

  27. Thanks Ben. That looks like a solid list you’ve got going on your blog as well.

    I’m hoping as more tablets flood the market that my next post will be a “Tablets You Should Buy” post, showing which chipsets have source code avaiable. There are a couple of TI OMAP2-based tablets out there now, which looks very promising because support is already part of the kernel.

  28. Android isn’t running ANY GNU packages and is not licensed under the GPL! It DOES USE the Linux kernel, which Stalman has so carefully made certain we all know IS NOT A GNU CREATION, and is licensed with an APACHE LICENSE!

    I, too find the light on dark very difficult to read. Why the author insists on using a color scheme that has not got enough contrast to be readable, and simply insists he’s met one or another “standard” for readability when he’s being told that IN REAL LIFE people are having trouble reading it is stupid! And too many FSF people are stupid in this very way! I am so sick to death of hearing that Stalman won’t do this or that podcast unless everyone on the podcast agrees to say “gnu slash linux” every time they refer to Linux instead of making an argument that makes people feel they should say “gnu slash linux” just proves he isn’t interested in forwarding the goals of open source but in getting credit he feels he’s being denied. And I’m just getting tired enough decide FSF isn’t worth it.

  29. Take a deep breath there spookie, I’m worried you might pass out.

    The Linux kernel is most certainly GPLv2 licensed. The rant about “GNU/Linux” naming is at best tangentially related. Despite your comment being mostly irrelevant, I’m going to leave it up for now as a cautionary tale.

    PS I didn’t insist that the site met any standards. When it was pointed out, I admitted the contrast was borderline and then changed it so it now exceeds the W3C standard. When I did that I asked for feedback. I appreciate people telling me that they still find it hard to read, I’ll take it into consideration when deciding what next to do about my site’s theme.

  30. Angus, would be good to see Dell Streak on the list.

    Happy to provide a few links that might help them earn a provisional ‘Yes’, in your GPL compliant check.

    I am not holding Dell up as a perfect example here, as a bit of reading will show, that they did need a bit of a shove.
    ( It may take a month or two for android users to attempt rebuilds based on and truly ‘peer review’)

    Your article has really helped raise the awareness on this whole issue.

    Vendors have been known to go through the deny, comply, ‘paper in the box’ cycle and come out okay.


    • Hi Gary,

      Thanks for the links, I’d been following the Streak as well.

      I think it might actually be time to do a follow-up post, as the situation has changed a lot in the past two months and the number of EDITs in the original is getting ridiculous. :).

      – Angus

  31. Hello, your blog is interesting. The articles are really great, but sorry i don’t like your website design, maybe you find better wp themes when you search on for “the best wordpress themes”.

  32. Hi Writing from Neuros, I’m going to be pushing on multiple fronts to get as much source code as possible for our devices. If we can’t get source for the modified android for our tablets, I’d be inclined to work to migrate as quickly as possible to a standard distribution. I’ve already put in an inquiry and, with any luck, we’ll at least be able to figure out what modifications have been made. My guess is that the vast bulk of it will be crapware that’s not of interest anyway.

    In my experience, this process takes time. In 2003 when we launched an open source portable audio device, TI contacted us to remove our source because the headers linked to their proprietary code. Today they’ve become increasingly good open source citizens, sponsoring projects and contributing code to mainline. I’ve not worked with VIA/wondermedia before and not being million unit/year customers we may have trouble getting a huge amount of attention, but I will keep all of you posted.

  33. Sad to say, but B&N Nook source is outdated by and could not be used without patching. Even more, after several weeks of patching and tweaking I found that latest official 1.5 contains some new optimizations that boosts e-ink performance for about 2 times while reading! I had to abandon my own kernel branch cause of this – no one wished to use “custom kernel” that is slower than original :(

  34. Well, all this is a little bit non realistic. Compagnies like gooogle are perfectly gpl compliant since they do not violate any term of the GPL license agreement at all. For the rest, I think that people have the right to choose the license they want to use for the software they create. I dont see why someone should tell you which license to use. People have the freedom to choose GPL or not. Thank god! Trying to force people to use a certain kind of license is as bad as the imperialism of some compagnies. What do you prefer as a programmer? A big compagny like Microsoft paying you a very good salary for your programming work, rewarding you? Or being Linus Torvald’s slave, working like a slave to promote a GPl system rewarding a few people except you? Because Linus is very rich thanks to the efforts of the community. Because big compagnies make huge profits by selling your software. And guess what, you will never see a cent of it. By promising you a certain kind of freedom not very useful at all for yourself, some people laugh at you and enjoy the real freedom to be rich.

  35. Nomad, thanks for the update. :(. It’s a shame that companies often seem to tick the “GPL source release” box on (or, alternatively, weeks after) launch day, and then never look at it again. Have you contacted B&N to ask where the update is? The gpl-violations Vendor FAQ may be a good page to point them to.

    AlexAndro, that’s an unusual comment. I think it’s probably largely self-refuting, but at the very least I would say people certainly have the right to “choose the license they want to use for the software they create”, and I have no problem with that. It becomes a problem when people decide to violate the licenses for other people’s software when they roll it into their own product for sale. That’s what this post is talking about.

    Your “programmer working for…” argument seems fairly nonsensical. At the very least, the programmers I personally know who are paid by large companies to work on GPL projects seem very happy and they make good money to boot. All programmers should be so lucky. ;). As for community & hobbyist development, some people like coding so much they do it in their spare time as well. :)

  36. rooting the Nook seams to popular these days. You can turn it from a e reader into a Tablet in ten minutes and that’s cool.
    I just play around with the stuff and really don’t understand all the licensing stuff. Thats why i rarely comment on these issues

  37. Even if the companies comply with the GPL you still have the fact that the android driver-like-libs for things like the touchscreen, mpeg accelerator and other features are not open at all due to the horrible copytheft license that Google uses: Apache 2 License. This license means that these manufacturers will simply lock users out and not share at all.

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