Linux users are more likely than most to be familiar with Chromium, Google’s the free and open source web project that serves as the basis for their wildly popular Chrome. Since the project’s inception over a decade ago, users have been able to compile the BSD licensed code into a browser that’s almost the same as the closed-source Chrome. As such, most distributions offer their own package for the browser and some even include it in the base install. Unfortunately, that may be changing soon.
A post made earlier this month to the official Chromium Blog explained that an audit had determined “third-party Chromium based browsers” were using APIs that were intended only for Google’s internal use. In response, any browser attempting to access features such as Chrome Sync with an unofficial API key would be prevented from doing so after March 15th.
To the average Chromium user, this doesn’t sound like much of a problem. In fact, you might even assume it doesn’t apply to you. The language used in the post makes it sound like Google is referring to browsers which are spun off of the Chromium codebase, and at least in part, they are. But the search giant is also using this opportunity to codify their belief that the only official Chromium builds are the ones that they provide themselves. With that simple change, anyone using a distribution-specific build of Chromium just became persona non grata.
If you’re looking to rid your day to day life of dead trees, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of the reMarkable tablet. The sleek device aims to replace the traditional notebook. To that end, remarkable was designed to mimic the feeling of writing on actual paper as closely as possible. But like so many modern gadgets, it’s unfortunately encumbered by proprietary code with a dash of vendor lock-in. Or at least, it was.
[Davis Remmel] has been hard at work porting Parabola, a completely free and open source GNU/Linux distribution, to the reMarkable. Developers will appreciate the opportunity to audit and modify the OS, but even from an end-user perspective, Parabola greatly opens up what you can do on the device. Before you were limited to a tablet UI and a select number of applications, but with this replacement OS installed, you’ll have a full-blown Linux desktop to play with.
You still won’t be watching videos or gaming on the reMarkable (though technically, you would be able to), but you could certainly use it to read and edit documents the original OS didn’t support. You could even use it for light software development. Since USB serial adapters are supported, microcontroller work isn’t out of the question either. All while reaping the considerable benefits of electronic paper.
The only downside is that the WiFi hardware is not currently supported as it requires proprietary firmware to operate. No word on whether or not [Davis] is willing to make some concession there for users who aren’t quite so strict about their software freedoms.
On the whole, hackers aren’t overly fond of other people telling them what they can and cannot do with the hardware or software they’ve purchased. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more difficult to avoid DRM and other Draconian rules and limitations as time goes on. Digital “eBooks” and the devices that are used to view them are often the subject of such scrutiny, which is why [Joey Castillo] has made it his mission to develop a open hardware eReader that truly belongs to the user.
[Joey] has been working on what he calls the “The Open Book Project” for a few months now, and he’s just recently announced that the first reader has been successfully assembled and powered up. As is usually the case, a few hardware issues were identified with this initial prototype. But it sounds like the device was largely functional, and only a few relatively minor tweaks to the board layout and components should be necessary before the hardware is ready for the masses.
If you’re feeling a bit of déjà vu seeing this, don’t worry. The Open Book Project has taken a somewhat circuitous path to get to this first prototype, and [Joey] had previously developed and built the “eBook Feather Wing”. While they look very similar, that earlier incarnation required an Adafruit Feather to operate and was used to help refine the firmware and design concepts that would go into the final hardware.
The Open Book is powered by a ATSAMD51N19A processor with a GD25Q16 2MB flash chip to hold the CircuitPython code, and a microSD slot to store the actual book files. It also features support for audio output via a standard 3.5 mm headset jack, an RGB status LED, and expansion ports that tap into the I2C interface for adding whatever other hardware you can dream up.
One of the most interesting aspects of this Creative Commons licensed reader is the extensive self documentation [Joey] has included on the silkscreen. Every major component on the back of the PCB has a small description of its purpose and in some cases even a breakdown of the pin assignments. The idea being that it not only makes the device easier to assemble and debug, but that it can also explain to the curious user what everything on the board does and why it’s necessary. It’s a concept that makes perfect sense given the goals of the Open Book Project, and something that we frankly would love to see more of.
[Marc Juul] presented his work on a FOSS operating system for older-model Kindles at HOPE XII as a way to avoid Orwellian monitoring of the user’s reading habits, so it’s interesting to see somebody take this idea to the next level with completely libre reader hardware. Unfortunately none of this addresses the limited availability of DRM-free eBooks, but one step at a time.
Free and open source software (FOSS) was a recurring theme during many of the talks during the HOPE XII conference, which should probably come as no surprise. Hackers aren’t big fans of being monitored by faceless corporate overlords or being told what they can and cannot do on the hardware they purchased. Replacing proprietary software with FOSS alternatives is a way to put control back into the hands of the user, so naturally many of the talks pushed the idea.
In most cases that took the form of advising you to move your Windows or Mac OS computer over to a more open operating system such as GNU/Linux. Sound advice if you’re looking for software freedom, but it’s a bit quaint to limit such thinking to the desktop in 2018. We increasingly depend on mobile computing devices, and more often than not those are locked down hard with not only a closed proprietary operating system but also a “Walled Garden” style content delivery system. What’s the point of running all FOSS software at home on your desktop if you’re carrying a proprietary mobile device around?
That’s precisely the thinking that got Marc Juul interested in the possibility of bringing a FOSS operating system to e-reader devices. During his talk “Liberate Your E-book Reader with fread.ink!”, he gave examples such as Amazon’s infamous remote deletion of 1984 off of users’ Kindles as a perfect example of the sort of control these companies exert on our personal devices. Marc believes the goal should be to completely replace the operating system on these devices with a free software alternative that still retains the ability to open electronic book formats. Not only would this keep the likes of Amazon or Barnes and Noble out of our reading habits, but turn these cheap readers into more capable devices in the bargain.
Whether or not you personally agree with all the ideals of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), you’ve got to give them credit: they don’t mess around. They started by laying the groundwork for a free and open source operating system, then once that dream was realized, started pushing the idea of replacing proprietary BIOS firmware with an open alternative such as Libreboot. But apparently, even that’s not enough, as there’s still more freedom to be had. We’re playing 4D Libre Chess now, folks.
To flash your libre boot firmware on your libre OS running computer without any proprietary funny business, you’re going to need a libre chip programmer. Luckily, the FSF has just awarded the Zerocat Chipflasher their “Respects Your Freedom” certification, meaning every element of the product is released under a free license for your hacking enjoyment. According to the FSF, this is a major milestone towards their goal of providing users a truly free and open source computer, from the browser all the way down to the BIOS.
Of course, you don’t need to be Richard Stallman to appreciate a fully open chip programmer. With the software, wiring diagrams, and PCB files available on the Chipflasher’s website, the project is an excellent educational reference. Is also means that with a clone the Chipflasher’s Git repository, you’re well on the way to spinning up your own build of the device.
Given the roughly $350 USD price tag on the first generation Zerocat Chipflasher, it seems fairly likely we’ll be seeing some DIY builds of this device before too long. Not that we want to deprive Zerocat commercial success for this very neat piece of gear, but for many it’s a mighty steep price; even if you do get all the Freedoms.
Years ago, while the GPLv3 was still being drafted, I got a chance to attend a presentation by Richard Stallman. He did his whole routine as St IGNUcius, and then at the end said he would be answering questions in a separate room off to the side. While the more causal nerds shuffled out of the presentation room, I went along with a small group of free software aficionados that followed our patron saint into the inner sanctum.
When my turn came to address the free software maestro, I asked what advantages the GPLv3 would have to a lowly hacker like myself? I was familiar with the clause about “Tivoization“, the idea that any device running GPLv3 code from the manufacturer should allow the user to be able to install their own software on it, but this didn’t seem like the kind of thing most individuals would ever need to worry about. Was there something in the new version of the GPL that would make it worth adopting in personal or hobby projects?
Interestingly, a few years after this a GPLv2 program of mine was picked up by a manufacturer and included in one of their products (never underestimate yourself, folks). So the Tivoization clause was actually something that did apply to me in the end, but that’s not the point of this story.
Mr. Stallman responded that he believed the biggest improvement GPLv3 made over v2 for the hobbyist programmer was the idea of “forgiveness” in terms of licensing compliance. Rather than take a hard line approach like the existing version of the GPL, the new version would have grace periods for license compliance. In this way, legitimate mistakes or misunderstandings of the requirements of the GPL could be resolved more easily.
As an Apple user, I’ve become somewhat disillusioned over the past few years. Maybe it’s the spirit of Steve Jobs slowly vanishing from the company, or that Apple seems to care more about keeping up with expensive trends lately rather than setting them, or the nagging notion Apple doesn’t have my best interests as a user in mind.
Whatever it is, I was passively on the hunt for a new laptop with the pipe dream that one day I could junk my Apple for something even better. One that could run a *nix operating system of some sort, be made with quality hardware, and not concern me over privacy issues. I didn’t think that those qualities existed in a laptop at all, and that my 2012 MacBook Pro was the “lesser of evils” that I might as well keep using. But then, we published a ThinkPad think piece that had two words in it that led me on a weeks-long journey to the brand-new, eight-year-old laptop I’m currently working from. Those two words: “install libreboot”.