The next project on the horizon: A Free Software CardOS

Now that we have a 100% free software GSM protocol stack and baseband firmware for the network and mobile phone side, the only remaining proprietary part is the SIM card. And what is a SIM card? It's a small embedded computer / SoC with integrated flash + RAM.

Once again, like in many other areas of the telecommunications industry, development of Free Software has been hampered by lack of available register-level hardware documentation. Without such information, how should you be able to program? Hardware without such documentation is an insult to every software developer.

The next problem is that typically, the Card Operating System (COS) is written into mask ROM of the smartcard SoC. Making such a mask is quite expensive, and it means that for every software version, different silicon will have to be produced. So unless you are going to have millions of units in quantity, it is unlikely that it would make economic sense.

However, in recent years, purely flash based smartcard chips have been available and getting less and less expensive. However, none of them (like the Atmel AT90SC7272 or similar devices) have freely available documentation. Furthermore, availability on the open market is somewhat of a problem, mainly because they have been used extensively by people cracking encrypted satellite TV channels. In recent years, the smartcard industry is trying hard to cut any kind of supply to that group of users.

However, luckily, we now see small/independent chip design houses in China picking up and producing their own smartcard chips. They are not only cheaper, but they simply hand out the documentation to anyone who asks them. No questions asked, no NDA required. Welcome to the promised land! That's what Free Software developers like:

  • Free access to documentation without any confidentiality agreements
  • development samples available at the same price as quantity pricing later on
  • inexpensive development hardware with JTAG access
  • reference source code provided without NDA
  • they are happy that somebody wants to develop for their hardware

As you can see, I am quite enthusiastic about this. I like this no-bullshit approach. No stupid marketing and sales droids who charge ridiculous fees for proprietary development tools that are inflexible and force developers to use one particular OS/IDE/toolchain.

I'm not sure how much time there will be, given the multitude of other projects that are all asking for attention. However, I think this is a chance that the Free Software community doesn't get every day. Let's hope some other people like bare iron programming in small embedded systems can get excited and we can create a FOSS COS. It doesn't have to be something serious. Something quite simple would be sufficient for the beginning. I'm not thinking of EAL4+ certification, multiple channels and public key crypto. SIM/USIM cards are simple, they just require a bit of filesystem read/write operations plus authentication. And luckily, SIM toolkit development doesn't have to be done in Java this way, either ;)