Posts Tagged ‘Linux’

Android, Busybox and the GNU project

12/11/2012 2 comments

Richard Stallman, the father of the Free Software movement and the GNU project, always insists that people refer to some Linux based operating systems as “GNU/Linux”. This point is so important to him, he will refuse to grant an interview to anyone not willing to use the correct term.

There are people who don’t like this attitude. Some have even tried to “scientifically prove” that GNU project code comprises such a small part of a modern Linux distribution that it does not deserved to be mentioned in the name of such distributions.


Personally, I used to think that the GNU project deserved recognition for it’s crucial historical role in building freedom respecting operating systems, even if it was only a small part of a modern system.

But a recent experience proved to me that it is not about the amount of code lines or number of packages. And it is not a historical issue. There really is a huge distinction between Linux and GNU/Linux, but to notice it you have to work with a different kind of Linux. One that is not only stripped of GNU components, but of its approach to system design and user interface.

Say hello to Android. Or should I say Android/Linux…


Many people forget, it seems, that Linux is just a kernel. And as such, it is invisible to all users, advanced and novice alike. To interact with it, you need an interface, be it a text based shell or a graphical desktop.

So what happens when someone slaps a completely different user-space with a completely different set of interfaces on top of the Linux kernel?


Here is the story that prompted me to write this half rant half tip post:

My boss wanted to backup his personal data on his Android phone. This sounds like it should be simple enough to do, but the reality is quite the opposite.

In the Android security model, every application is isolated by having its own user (they are created sequentially and have names like app_123).

An application is given its own folder in the devices data partition where it is supposed to store its data such as configuration, user progress (for games) etc.

No application can access the folder of another application and read its data.


This makes sense from the security perspective, except for one major flaw: no 3rd party backup utility can ever be made. And there is no backup utility provided as part of the system.

Some device makers provide their own backup utilities, and starting with Android 4.0 there is a way to perform a backup through ADB (which is part of Android SDK), but this method is not designed for the average user and has several issues.


There is one way, an application on the device can create a proper backup: by gaining root privileges.

But Android is so “secure” it has no mechanism to allow the user to grant such privileges to an application, no matter how much he wants or needs to.

The solution of course, is to change the OS to add the needed capability, but how?

Usually, the owner of a stock Android device would look for a tool that exploits a security flaw in the system to gain root privileges. Some devices can be officially unlocked so a modified version of Android can be installed on them with root access already open.


The phone my boss has is somewhat unusual: it has a version of the OS designed for development and testing, so it has root but the applications on it do not have root.

What this confusing statement means is, that the ADB daemon is running with root privileges on the device allowing you to get a root shell on the phone from the PC and even remount the system partition as writable.

But, there is still no way for an application running on the device to gain root privileges, so when my boss tried to use Titanium Backup, he got a message that his device is not “rooted” and therefore the application will not work.


Like other “root” applications for Android, Titanium Backup needs the su binary to function. But stock Android does not have a su binary. In fact, it does not even have the cp command. Thats right – you can get a shell interface on Android that might look a little bit like the “regular Linux”, but if you want to copy a file you have to use cat.

This is something you will not see on a GNU/Linux OS, not even other Linux based OSs designed for phones such as Maemo or SHR.


Google wanted to avoid any GPL covered code in the user-space (i.e. anywhere they could get away with it), so not only did they not use a “real” shell (such as BASH) they didn’t even use Busybox which is the usual shell replacement in small and embedded systems. Instead, they created their own very limited (or as I call it neutered) version called “Toolbox”.


Fortunately, a lot of work has been done to remedy this, so it is not hard to find a Busybox binary ready made to run on Android powered ARM based device.

The trick is installing it. Instructions vary slightly from site to site, but I believe the following will work in most cases:

adb remount
adb push busybox /system/bin
adb shell chmod 6755 /system/bin/busybox
adb shell busybox --install /system/bin

Note that your ADB must run as root on the device side!

The important part to notice here is line 3: you must set gid and uid bits on the busybox binary if you want it to function properly as su.

And no – I didn’t write the permissions parameter to chmod as digits to make my self look like a “1337 hax0r”. Android’s version of chmod does not accept letter parameters for permissions.


After doing the steps above I had a working busybox and a proper command shell on the phone, but the backup application still could not get root. When I installed a virtual terminal application on the phone and tried to run su manually I got the weirdest error: unknow user: root

How could this be? ls -l clearly showed files belonging to ‘root’ user. As GNU/Linux user I was used to more descriptive and helpful error messages.

I tried running ‘whoami’ from the ADB root shell, and got a similarly cryptic message: unknown uid 0

Clearly there was a root user with the proper UID 0 on the system, but busybox could not recognize it.


Googling showed that I was not the only one encountering this problem, but no solution was in sight. Some advised to reinstall busybox, others suggested playing with permissions.

Finally, something clicked: on a normal GNU/Linux system there is a file called passwd in etc folder. This file lists all the users on the system and some information for each user such as their home folder and login shell.

But Android does not use this file, and so it does not exist by default.


Yet another difference.

So I did the following:

adb shell
# echo 'root::0:0:root:/root:/system/sh' >/etc/passwd

This worked like a charm and finally solved the su problem for the backup application. My boss could finally backup and restore all his data on his own, directly on the phone and without any special trickery.


Some explanation of the “magic” line:

In the passwd file each line represents a single user, and has several ‘fields’ separated by colons (:). You can read in detail about it here.

I copied the line for the root user from my PC, with some slight changes:

The second field is the password field. I left it blank so the su command will not prompt for password.

This is a horrible practice in terms of security, but on Android there is no other choice, since applications attempting to use the su command do not prompt for password.

There are applications called SuperUser and SuperSU that try to ask user permission before granting root privileges, but they require a special version of the su binary which I was unable to install.


The last field is the “login shell” which on Android is /system/sh

The su binary must be able to start a shell for the application to execute its commands.

Note, this is actually a symlink to the /system/mksh binary, and you may want to redirect it to busybox.


So this is my story of making one Android/Linux device a little more GNU/Linux device.

I took me a lot of time, trial and error and of course googling to get this done, and reminded me again that the saying “Linux is Linux” has its limits and that we should not take the GNU for granted.

It is an important part of the OS I use both at home and at work, not only in terms of components but also in terms of structure and behavior.


And it deserves to be part of the OS classification, if for no other reason than to distinguish the truly different kinds of Linux that are out there.


One of these things is not like the others!

30/08/2012 2 comments

Please look at the following picture:

These are “smart” phones I own.

All of them have different hardware specs, but one is truly different from the others.

Image of four smartphones

Can you tell which one?






It’s the one on the right – i-mate Jamin.

It is also the first “smart” phone that I ever owned.


What makes it different from the others?

The fact that it is the only one in the bunch that does not run on Free Software.


I was inspired to take this picture and put it on my blog by another post (in Hebrew), that talks about black, round corner rectangles and the recent madness surrounding them.

But I am not going to write about that.

There are already plenty of voices shouting about it all over the Internet, and I have nothing constructive to add.

Instead, I will introduce you to my lovely phone collection, which contributed a lot to my hobby and professional programming.


And we will start with the historical sample on the right: i-mate Jamin. (specs)


Back in early 2006, when this device came out, “smartphone” was still a registered trademark of Microsoft, the name they chose for the version of their Windows CE based mobile OS for devices with no touchscreen. (The touchscreen version was then called Windows Mobile Phone Edition)

Such devices were for geeks and hard core businessmen who had to be glued to their office 24/7.


But despite having a proprietery OS, this was a very open device: you could run any program on it (we didn’t call them “apps” then), and you could develop for them without the need to register or pay.

It didn’t matter what country you were from, or how old you were. The complete set of tools was available as a free download from Microsoft’s site.

And the OS allowed you to do a lot of things to it: like its desktop cousin, it completely lacked security, you could even overwrite, or more precisely “overshadow” OS files that were in ROM with a copy with the same name stored in user accessible NAND flash (or RAM on older devices).


The system API was almost identical to the Win32 API, which was (and still is) very common on the desktop, so if you knew how to write a program for your Windows powered PC, you knew how to write a program for your phone.

Unlike the systems we are used to today, Windows Mobile had no built in store.

You were on your own when it came to distributing your software, though there were several sites that acted much like the application stores do today: they sold your program for a commission.

But that too meant freedom: no commercial company was dictating morals to the developers or telling them that their program had no right to exist because it “confused users” or simply competed with that company’s own product.

So even though the OS brought with it most of the diseases common to desktop versions of Windows, it gave developers a free range, and thus had a thriving software ecosystem, until MS killed it off in a futile attempt to compete with Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android by taking the worst aspects of both.


The second phone from the right is the Neo 1973.

It was so named because 1973 was the year the first cellular call was made.


I got this device in 2008. By that time, I learned a lot about software freedom, so when I heard about a completely free (as in freedom of speech) phone, I just had to have it.

It wasn’t easy: it could only be bough directly from the company, which meant international shipping and a lot of bureaucracy with the ministry of communication that required special approval over every imported cellphone.

I was particularly concerned because this was not a commercially available model, despite having FCC certification, so it was possible that I could not get it through customs as a private citizen.

In the end, the problem was solved, though not before customs fees and added UPS charges almost doubled the cost of the device.


It felt great to have it. I never had such complete freedom with a phone before.

But then I realized – I had no idea what to do with this freedom! Developing for the OpenMoko Linux distribution (later, the project switched to SHR) was very different from developing for Windows.

I had a lot to learn, and in the end, I wound up making only one usable program for my two Neo phones: the screen rotate.


One of the things that amazed me about the OpenMoko project was, that even though the software and hardware were experimental and in early stage of development, in many ways they were much better then the commercial Windows Mobile that was being sold for years to many phone makers.

For example, OpenMoko had perfect BiDi support needed for Hebrew and Arabic languages, as well as fonts for those languages shipped with the OS.

This is something MS never did for Windows Mobile, despite having a large R&D center in Israel for almost two decades, and having a large market in other countries that write right-to-left languages.


Also, the Internet browser, though slow, was much more advanced then the one on WM, and even came close to passing the Asid2 test.


The only trouble was, I could never get the microphone working. It didn’t really matter, since I wanted the phone for development and testing, and didn’t intend to carry it around with me for daily use.


Which brings us to the next phone in the collection: the Neo Freerunner.

This was the second device from the OpenMoko project, the more powerful successor to the Neo 1973.


At first, I swore I would not by it. There just wasn’t enough difference between it and the original. Sure, it had WiFi and a faster processor, but is that really a reason to by another phone?

But by that time, my trusty old Jamin was getting really old, it developed some hardware problems and even with a new battery would not charge well.


I had a lot of choice in smartphones, working for a company that developed software for them, yet I could not bare the thought of buying yet another non-free phone.

So in the end I broke, and bought the Freerunner, mostly for that nice feeling of carrying a tiny computer in my pocket, made completely with Free Software and Open Hardware.

Thanks to Doron Ofek who put a lot of effort in to advancing the OpenMoko project (and other Free Software projects) in Israel, getting the second device was much easier.


And so it became my primary and only cellphone for the next three years.

I don’t think there are too many people in the world who can honestly say they used OpenMoko phone as their primary cellphone, with no backup, but I was one of them.

Flashing a brand new OS twice a month or more (if I had time) was just part of the fun.


Sadly, all good things come to an end. The life expectancy of a smartphone is 18 month at best. I was seeing powerful Android based devices all around me, with large screens, fast processors, and, most importantly – 3G data (I spend a lot of time out of WiFi range).

And I wanted a stable device. As much as I hated to admit it I needed a break from living with a prototype phone and a rapidly changing OS.

But I wasn’t ready to loose my freedom. And I didn’t want to completely surrender my privacy.

Most Android devices need to be hacked just to get root on your own system. And even though the OS is Free Software, most of the “apps”, including built in ones, are proprietery.

And of course, Google is trying to milk every last bit of your personal information it can, and trying to keep them from doing it on Android is very uncomfortable, though definitely possible.


This just won’t do.


Finally, I found a perfect compromise:

My current phone – Nokia N900 (spec).


It was far from being a new device, when I finally ordered one thorough eBay.

It had a major downside compared to any Android device – it had a resistive instead of capacitive touchscreen.


Yet it was the perfect merger, borrowing from all worlds:

It runs mostly on free software, with a real GNU/Linux distribution under the hood, unlike Android which uses a modified Linux kernel, but has little in common with what most people call “Linux”.

It has a proper package manager, offering a decent selection of free software, and updates for all system components including special kernels, but also connected to Nokia’s OVI store.

It even came with a terminal emulator already installed.


Unlike the OpemMoko project, this was a finished and polished device. With a stable, simple, useful and convenient interface, widgets, and all applications working satisfactory out of the box.

It even has the flash plugin, which, though a horrible piece of proprietery software on which grave I will gladly dance, is still needed sometimes to access some sites.


So here I am now, with an outdated, but perfectly usable phone, that can do just about anything from connecting USB peripherals to mounting NFS shares.

It is perfect for me, despite it’s slightly bulky size and relatively small 3.5 inch screen.


But I know that no phone lasts for ever. Some day, the N900 will have to be retired, yet I see no successor on the horizon.

With Microsoft and Apple competing in “who can take away most user rights and get away with it”, and Android devices still containing plenty of locks, restrictions and privacy issues, I don’t know what I will buy when the time comes.

Who knows, maybe with luck and a lot of effort by some very smart people, the GTA04 will blossom in to something usable on a daily basis.

Or maybe Intel will get off their collective behinds and put out a phone with whatever Meego/Maemo/Moblin has morphed in to.

Even Mozilla is pushing out a Mobile OS of sorts, so who knows…


What do you think?

Solutions vs Products

04/06/2011 Leave a comment

I originally intended this blog to be about development, with programming tips, tricks, and maybe even following some open source project of mine, but for now, I just couldn’t find any suitable material of this kind to publish.

Most of the new stuff I learned recently was already well documented else were, and I did not want my blog to be a copy of a copy bringing no added value.

But I don’t want it to be strictly opinionated rants ether, so I decided to start a new series, which is something in between: technical examples (not necessarily code), that go to prove my strong opinion that Free and Open Source Software is better than closed source non free software.

I call this series: “Solution vs Products”.

In Free Software, developers always seek to provide a solution for a certain problem. Software solution that will fulfill a certain need. Very often, it is their own need, but that does not mean that others do not benefit greatly from the solution.

Companies, that build their business on Free and Open Source software like RedHat and Canonical, make money from providing solutions to their customers, not simply selling them products.

The difference, is not just a marketing slang. It is in the kinds of programs that are available, and the features these programs have. In this series, I will demonstrate my personal encounters with features of Free Software that proprietary software does not provide, and some, I believe can not provide, under its current business model.

But, rather than continuing to describe it, lets just jump to an example that will demonstrate what I am talking about:

Drivers, drivers, drivers…

One of the myths about GNU/Linux and Free operating systems in general, is that they don’t support a lot of hardware.

In plain folks talk “There ain’t no drivers for this thing…”

But reality is, that hardware support in Linux distributions is often better than in the latest version of Microsoft Windows. The myth is propagated by the fact that just about any piece of hardware you buy will have a disk with Windows drivers accompanying it, but no Linux drivers.

People don’t realize this is because such a thing is not needed.

Some time ago, I had a faithful old Pentium 4 2.8GHz computer with a simple graphics card based on Nvidia chip.

There was no driver problem for this card in Windows XP, and it was also recognized out of the box by Ubuntu 7.10, though it had to install the proprietary Nvidia driver to fully support it.

That, was actually less of a hassle than installing the driver for XP from the CD that came with the card, but since Ubuntu 7.10 is significantly newer then Windows XP, it can be forgiven.

One day, the card died (or fried, I am not sure which). Fortunately, I still had the manual for the motherboard, so I knew by the beep sounds my computer made that the fault was in the graphics card and not any other component.

I went to the nearest computer store and got a replacement card. It had the exact same Nvidia chip in it, but the card itself was from a different manufacturer then the old one.

When I plugged it in and booted up, Ubuntu worked as though nothing happened. The Nvidia driver was universal, and it didn’t care that I had a different card in, as long as it had a supported chip in it.

With XP however, the situation was not nearly as good. I had to boot up in “Safe Mode”, uninstall the old driver, then boot up in normal mode and install a different driver for the new card.

Yet another case that demonstrates this issue occurred to me when I bought a very cheap web camera as part of a bet.

The bet was simple: will it be recognized out of the box by Ubuntu? I said “yes” but some people doubted that was possible. Well, I did not have a web cam, and Office Depot were selling some dirt cheap model, so I bought it.

To be fair, I lost the bet. At the time (2008) to get a camera with that particular chip working on Ubuntu a kernel module had to be compiled.

Two years later, however, the module is now part of the official distribution, and the camera is recognized out of the box.

And what of Windows 7? Nothing. since the CD I got with the camera does not contain drivers for it, and since there is no way of identifying the cameras manufacturer (it carries no trademarks), it is useless for Windows user.

Fortunately, I am not a Windows user…

One last case of “driver issues” I keep running in to at work, is with Android devices.

These devices (mostly phones and tablets) use a system called Android Debug Bridge (ADB for short), to communicate with the PC to aid in developing software. Through ADB the developer can debug applications (duh!), read system logs, get shell access to the device and more.

When working on Windows, every individual Android device needs a special driver to be recognized for ADB connection. Even two different phones from the same manufacturer need separate drivers.

This drives a couple of Android developers I know crazy.

On Linux, on the other hand, no driver is necessary. The PC side ADB component can locate any ADB capable device connected to USB and communicate with it.

I do not know what exactly caused the driver architecture to be so drastically different between Windows and Linux. Perhaps it was a purely engineering decision.

But perhaps, it was the fact that much of the hardware support for Linux had to be achieved through reverse engineering due to lack of cooperation from the manufacturers, that brought about modules that support entire families of products and kernel that provides ease of access to peripheral hardware for user-space programs even without a kernel module.

Either way, we have here three small examples where Free Software makes life easy while proprietary software gives you a headache.

Next up: Emergency computer resurrection: a vital solution no proprietary software company could possibly provide.

Stay tuned!