Less closed hardware - Fairphone, Framework, & "Mr Gotcha"

I am so grateful for the incredible people I met at GOSH 2022 in Panama and the stimulating conversations. Please help document our collective knowledge by helping @laola here.

One topic that I had chats about with @goldjian and @Nat_Irwin (/@nat??) was on adopting “less closed” software in our lives. Extensive discussion about open source software tools are in this thread, but we also talked about less closed hardware. I’m creating this post as my notes on the topic, plus a related discussion about the challenges of not going all the way and open source “everything everywhere all at once” (no pun intended!), AKA what I call the “Mr Gotcha” problem. I think some of the themes are related to open science hardware, and hope it might be of interest to this community.

Fairphone smartphone

The Fairphone is a modern smartphone designed to be modular and repairable. If a component breaks, you can buy a replacement for it from the company. The modules are designed such that as long as you know how to use a screwdriver, you can repair the phone yourself. I recently replaced the microphone on my Fairphone 3 this way. Additionally, Fairphone far ahead of the industry in sourcing (relatively) environmentally and socially responsible raw materials, and pushing for fairer labour practices.

One problem is that the default operating system for the Fairphone is still encumbered by Google apps. It is convenient for many users, but is certainly not conducive to a fairer society. @goldjian asked if other operating systems are possible.

The Fairphone is unlocked by default, meaning it is fairly easy to replace its operating system. The one I use for my Fairphone 3 is LineageOS. To my knowledge this operating system is completely Google-free. Here is the list of devices supported by LineageOS which includes Fairphones.

More recently, I started using LineageOS with MicroG. Some mobile apps get confused if they don’t “see” Google, and would refuse to work. MicroG is something you install on a Google-free device that “tricks” those apps into thinking Google is present.

@goldjian and I talked about how while the Fairphone is IMO one of the most modular and repairable smartphones, it is not open source hardware. Only Fairphone has the specs to the phone and its components, and only they produce and sell replacement parts. When they stop selling those parts, no one else can make them.

This is a case of a product that’s much less closed than average and achieved positive outcomes, but because it is not truly open source there are still problems.

Framework laptop

@goldjian, @Nat_Irwin, and I also discussed the Framework. It is a fairly new laptop computer that is also designed to be highly modular and repairable. You can even order this laptop as a kit at a discount and assemble it yourself. All you need is a screwdriver. One review said that not only is this laptop the most exciting one they have used, but it’s also “the most exciting laptop I’ve ever broken”.

In my opinion, the Framework is doing this even better than the Fairphone because they have standardised its components more, and the company actively encourages others to develop modules or creative uses. I don’t think the entire laptop is open source, but many of its components are open source. In fact, creative remixes already exist such as this retro terminal which is built around the Framework core.

Unsurprisingly, the Framework laptop is highly compatible with open source operating systems such as Linux distributions. I love my secondhand Thinkpad X220, but the Framework is very tempting the next time I am looking for a computer.

Mr Gotcha

A common theme is that neither the Fairphone nor Framework fully meet the open source hardware definition. We generally agreed, however, that they are far less closed than other products in their categories, and by being less closed they introduce people to the benefits of more open hardware (and software). In this case, modularity and repairability.

Despite the benefits, our conversations reminded me of two frustrations when advocating for open source hardware and software.

One is how it is still not socially acceptable when one asks for the use of open source tools. For example, when a participant encounters trouble joining a Zoom online meeting, everyone is patient and understanding, sometimes calling it an “obligatory technical difficulty” and laughs it off. Eventually the meeting commences.

In contrast, let’s consider the case where the organiser wants to use the fully open source Jitsi Meet for a meeting and god-forbid someone has trouble connecting. What do you hear now? I have personally heard comments like “See? Open source is clearly not reliable”, or “Why do you insist on using an open source tool? This is making things difficult for everyone. You should learn to compromise.” These reactions are ironic given that they are not said when the same problems happen with closed source tools. The latter reaction is particularly patronising and sadly very common in my experience. Would you react the same way when a caterer asks for dietary requirements for a large event, and only one person is vegan? Is this vegan person “making things difficult” for everyone else? Would you judge them the same way? Similar to going vegan, there is a strong ethical motivation for open source software and hardware. I wish for the day when asking for open source tools is just as socially acceptable as asking for vegan options for catering.

The other frustration is what I now call the “Mr Gotcha” problem. IMO this problem takes on two forms. The first are the salty digs at me when I advocate for open source tools. I remember showing how to replace proprietary email clients like Microsoft Outlook for Apple Mail with Thunderbird, and some would respond with: “So why are you doing this on an Apple MacBook running a closed source operating system? Ha, gotcha!” I call this the Mr Gotcha problem because there’s a comic about him and a book about this character:

These kinds of Mr Gotcha responses miss the fact that (1) there are systematic problems beyond individual actions; and (2) there is still value to individual action even when you can’t go all the way all at once (e.g. towards veganism or open source). Both can be true.

The other side of the Mr Gotcha problem manifests within communities advocating for open source. I’ve seen so many threads where open source “experts” would be harsh and judgemental towards those new to the concept. I remember a conversation where someone was complaining about the extensive use of closed source software in their organisation (like the use of Microsoft Outlook or Zoom). I was dismayed to see responses from allegedly open source “advocates” blaming that person for their own use of proprietary software, or saying “I’ve exclusively use open source software in my life and work, it’s really not that hard!” or “If they don’t listen to you, just go on strike and ask your colleagues to strike with you until your company uses 100% open source software.:woman_facepalming: These responses - especially in the form of “just do x…” - demonstrate a striking lack of empathy and understanding of how difficult adopting open source tools can be for most people, and IMO are counterproductive to a good cause.

What am I trying to say with all this??? I guess it comes down:

  1. a need for having empathy about the challenges facing adopting open source in today’s reality
  2. understanding that it’s difficult and likely impractical to aim for going all the way all at once, while
  3. planning strategically on how to advance the cause with smart compromises that do not detract from the goal

For point 3., I am concerned that it is very easy to use the need for compromise as an excuse for apathy and inaction. This is a trap that’s easy to fall into! Lots of tricky tradeoffs here.

Thanks for putting up with my little rant. This is just one out of many wonderful, thought-provoking conversations I got from you at the Gathering in Panama. What do you think of the above? Happy to hear your thoughts.

On a more meta level, it would be great if conversations from our meetings could continue openly like this, so that knowledge is retained and shared and discussions made more accessible to those who couldn’t join in person.

If you enjoyed the sessions in Panama or had other interesting conversations, please help with @laola’s documentation effort!


Is open source a virtue purely in and of itself? Or do we fight to make certain things open source for specific reasons?

Should we use the best tools available in order to most efficiently make the tools that most need to be open open? Or is that hypocrisy?

Last things first, Mr Gotcha is a logical fallacy: just because one acts hypocritically (at the extreme) does not negate the argument. If one is to argue honestly, then the argument is to be addressed, not the hypocrisy. However, hypocrisy does reduce one’s credibility and opens one to cheap ad hominem attacks. Then no one looks good.

I have noticed that some people, especially those trained to think abstractly, are especially enamored of the qualities of modularity, and symmetry, and parsimony even. These have value in the abstract world (I’m thinking of mathematics), but in the physical realm they come at a cost in terms of physical resources.

A modular phone has been tried and abandoned by Google (project Ara nee Phoneblocks (sp?)). The interfaces between the modules are pure evil: they cost reliability (connectors are a weak spot), processing speed (signal buses have to be longer), poorer power draw (due to higher parasitic capacitance), space (connectors are physically large, and they constrain that space into a particular shape), and as a result the phone will cost more and perform less well. It would have been a flop were it not abandoned.

No, I do not buy into openness (or any other quality) as a virtue for its own sake. Virtue must prove itself. The benefits of openness are many: it is cheaper since you don’t have to husband secrets; it encourages pulling together instead of pulling apart; and especially in science, it promotes rigour.

However, it isn’t true that everything needs to be open. There is definitely a place for non-open things. What closedness has over openness is the almighty profit motive which when properly harnessed, serves to sublimate human ambition. Related to profit is competition, which is in economics a concept similar to checks and balances in politics, and these are good things generally since they promote stability and exploration albeit at some cost in efficiency.

When we meet, we mostly converse in English even though many of us may be fluent in some other language. Should we all switch to Esperanto? I think we should use whatever most people are comfortable with. Perhaps it would be nice if everyone spoke the same language, but I fear we would miss something in the lack of diversity. Allow folks to prefer what they prefer, then let’s get down to business.

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Like everything else it’s many things including destruction. I like to think the positives largely outrank the negatives.

@hpy thanks for the writing !

I thing the Mr Gotcha problem is mostly a techbro / mansplaining problem, how to get around the issue would be an interesting things to write up. The Turing way book might be a good place to have a chapter about that (it already is build around the idea that one does not have to be perfect but that working open is a path, where each step is important).

PS: similarly, when a docx file does not open well in libreoffice, one will blame libreoffice. When a odt file does not open well in word, one will blame libreoffice. Actually, it is word that makes crappy non-standard docx files (probably on purpose), but one will blame libreoffice.