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Interview: Jörg Wurzer of Volla Phone

Interview: Jörg Wurzer of Volla Phone

Published on: 31/01/2023 Last update: 17/03/2023 News
Photo of Joerg Wurzer
Source: Used with permission

Dr Jörg Wurzer is the Founder and Managing Director of the company behind the Volla Phone (website), a line of smartphones which use free / open source software, instead of the Android or iOS. (Note: the main Android OS project is free / open source but the licence allows people to make non-free versions.  Most Android users are using a non-free version, such as Google's version, for which not all source code is available.)

OSOR (Ciarán O'Riordan): What's the current status of making phones with free / open source software?

Dr Wurzer: We publish all parts (repository) except the source code of the parts that are owned by Mediatek and licensed for usage but not publication, such as drivers.

We are a young, ambitious company that offers two open source mobile operating systems preinstalled on our smartphone models: our own Volla OS, which is based on the open source Android, and the freely available alternative Ubuntu Touch.

About 70% of our customers select a Volla Phone with Volla OS and about 30% Ubuntu Touch. And for those, who can't decide, they can run a second or even third operating system like Sailfish OS.

OSOR: A lot of staff in public administrations are walking around with phones with lots of closed / non-free software. Elected officials too. What issues does this raise?

Dr Wurzer: An immediate consequence is initially high costs for Apple and Microsoft products, which have to be borne by taxpayers. However, public institutions would have to manage their resources carefully against the backdrop of rising national debt.

However, the security deficits of the products and solutions of the market-leading big tech companies seem even more important to me. Smartphones with an operating system from Apple and Google are inextricably linked to the companies' cloud.

Since these cloud services operate according to the paradigm of centralised data processing, there can be no data protection. The operators of the services can gain access and state organisations can enforce it. For the USA, the Patriot Act and Cloud Act apply.

In addition, the rejection of the Privacy Shield agreement between the EU and the USA by a ruling of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) precludes the use of big tech products by public authorities, as this would violate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Confidential information in particular is highly at risk from the use of smartphones with an operating system from Apple and Google.

This also applies to the use of Microsoft infrastructure for applications, on a phone or on a PC. It doesn't help when Deutsche Telekom operates an infrastructure for Microsoft 365 Cloud data storage in Germany. All calls to the technical interfaces initially go via US servers.

It is often forgotten what high risk is associated with the use of US cloud services, both economically and for the work of the authorities. Depending on the interests at stake or a political conflict, US politicians could order cloud services in Germany to be shut down or restricted.

Analogous to energy security, data sovereignty is essential.

OSOR: More and more public administrations are using free / open source software on their desktops and for online services. Why is so little attention given to the software on their phones?

Dr Wurzer: This is actually surprising, since mobile devices are at the centre of modern communication. We have not yet been able to win the public administration as a business customer, probably for formal reasons. Public administrations can only procure equipment via a central purchasing department, itself a public administration. The central purchasing department searches for suppliers through tenders, whose formal hurdles and required effort only leave Big Tech. Ergo: Innovations or Open-Source-based offers have no chance, unless the legislator prescribes this.

It is possibly that the alternatives are not even known to them.

Moreover, none of the market leaders for software or hardware offer an open source system. As a rule, no one wants to take responsibility for young, innovative companies.

As a manufacturer with German production, we control the entire technology stack from hardware to device drivers to user interface, so we can also offer operating systems adapted to an organisation as a customised solution. Large companies like Apple and Google can't even do that.

At the same time, we offer smartphones that are cloud-free. Users or organisations decide for themselves whether and which services they want to use. We combine this with special security concepts such as the security mode, which protects the device by blocking selected apps and Internet addresses and even changing settings.

Last but not least, the total cost of ownership is well below what devices with a closed operating system from the market leaders can offer. In addition to the high manufacturing quality in Germany, we can offer long-term system updates.

OSOR: How might changes to policy fix this?

Dr Wurzer: There can be formal hurdles when tenders make demands on the supplier that only corporations can fulfill. Alone the high effort to fulfill the formal requirements to participate in a tender mostly excludes small and medium sized companies. Green companies have adapted to this and maintain entire departments for tenders.

The fact that mobile service providers subsidise equipment for long-term contracts is more important for private customers. But renting equipment instead of buying it is definitely an attractive option, which again favours large companies that have the capital to pre-finance products.

The fact that some states and cities have set open source software as a goal in administration is promising. Smartphones with open source operating systems would be the logical consequence.

OSOR: What can you show them to convince them that this is good enough for most of their needs?)

Dr Wurzer: Two arguments: Simplicity and privacy protection.

Regarding privacy people are looking for a non-Google and Apple device with no cloud dependency. A special security feature is the security mode for blocking apps and domains.

And it's our unique user experience of the Volla start app (launcher) with the concept of immediate interaction, adaptive interface and ease of use. It's implemented with the concept of springboard with smart text field: Start typing anything and the system anticipates what you want to do and suggests auto-completion and features like sending a message or capturing a calendar event shortcuts: one gesture for most-used everyday features, smart collection for recent contacts, messages, notes and news

However people can also use the Volla Phone with Volla OS in a classic way with an app grid like in iOS or Stock Android. It's the freedom of choice that people appreciate.

OSOR: Dr Wurzer, thanks for taking time to discuss this with OSOR!

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