Saab IQon and Linux: when Open Source isn't Open, and your car isn't really yours


(update from Saab on 2011/03/10 available at the bottom)

Car maker Saab recently announced that it will use Android, a version for mobile devices of the “Free as in Freedom” Linux operating system, for its in-car entertainment and information system, the IQon.

IQon will do many things, including “audio and entertainment streaming, on-board music storage and online navigation”, thanks to a built-in modem that “automatically connects to the Internet when the vehicle’s owner switches on the ignition”. It looks like IQon will also enable remote communications between vehicle and dealerships (what will be the first car to call the dealer and schedule its check-up all by itself, then drive you there that day even if you had other plans? That’s still unclear).

That’s because IQon isn’t only about entertainment. It can also collect information about the status of the car and of its driver through hundreds of sensors that measure everything from speed to the position of the sun and the driver’s workload. Whatever that means.

Finally, Saab will make available to interested programmers all the information they’ll need to develop software for the IQon platform. And here, according to what I’ve read so far, is where the trap may be.

It is possible, not to say very, very likely, that this freedom (not just for programmers, also for drivers) is only an illusion, unless one hacks the system in ways that require not common skills and would surely void any warrantee anyway. It is very likely, that is, that drivers (that is, very frequently, the people who paid to own that car) will be allowed to load on the IQon only the software applications previously approved by Saab, and made available on the Saab/IQon online store. Basically, the same model made popular by iPhone and iPad, even if based on an Open Source, “Free as in Freedom” operating system.

And this brings us to the real question (not a new one, but IQon is a good example of why it’s important): sure, it uses Android, which is more or less Linux, which is Open Source, which is “Free as in Freedom”, but… can you call “yours” a car that you aren’t free to customize as you damn please (respecting safety laws and regulations, of course) even if you regularly bought? it

Of course, there’s nothing special in Saab’s policy. They’re certainly not the first company that “sells” products that turn out to not be really yours after all, because the can be used only as that company likes. Have you ever looked at how Blu-Ray is managed?

Update: for several reasons I couldn’t post it here immediately, but on 2011/03/10 I got this message from Saab:

Hi Marco,

Thanks for your inquiry. To answer your question: we just started up with the
process of establishing guidelines and policies for the developers community.
We plan to launch the toolkit in May and the finished product will be on the
market next autumn. We would be very happy to comment on the issues you refer
to once we have established the settings for the AppShop and also actually have
seen what the developer community is developing.

Kind regards,

Jeroen Demmendaal
Project Manager News & Corporate
Global Communications
Saab Automobile AB
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