AnX11 Phone Project


In a room full of economists, I'm the only one who runs regressions on a 5-ounce phone. My colleagues still carry 5-pound laptops.

Major vendors of mathematical and statistical software have only produced apps that connect to another computer or a proprietary server. By contrast, I can solve differential equations, plot likelihood functions and run regressions directly on my phone. It's a nice "on the go" solution and it's a relaxing way to work.

With Debian installed on my Android phone, I can run R scripts and Perl scripts directly on my phone. And, if I'm teaching class, I can project X11 applications like wxMaxima, qtOctave and Gretl from my phone onto the screen behind me.

Nonetheless, it seems strange to me that today (in 2016), eight years after the first commercial release of an Android phone, that Debian is the only provider of fully-featured mathematical and statistical tools that run on an Android phone.

Proprietary software vendors have only produced apps with limited functionality. MathWorks (maker of MatLab) provides an app that connects to another computer. Wolfram (maker of Mathematica) provides an app that connects to a proprietary server. MapleSoft provides an app that reads Maple files written for a computer, but does not allow users create or modify Maple files. The SAS Institute provides a version of its "Business Intelligence" for mobile devices, but other major vendors of statistical software (e.g. Stata and EViews) have not produced any mobile apps at all.

The lack of professional tools for mobile devices prevents a small, but significant number of people from using new technology to its full potential. AnX11 Phone project -- a project that aims to put X11 applications on Android devices -- could meet their needs.

For example, when teaching students how to estimate a model with a limited dependent variable, it helps to have them see the different models (probit, logit, Tobit, etc.) in Gretl's menus. I can, of course, project that onto a screen behind me, but students learn more when they discover it themselves.

So I want to put Gretl in their hands. When Gretl is on the screen behind me, I want Gretl on the phone in their hands, so that we can explore econometrics together.

There is, of course, the computer lab, but students learn more when the lesson is in their hands. They can sit back and relax with the phone in a way that they cannot with a computer.

The thought of "relaxing with econometrics on your phone" must sound bizarre to most people, but it is very appealing to a small number of people.

AnX11 Phone project aims to serve a small number of people: People who have a specific need that can be met by running Debian on an Android phone and who are also willing to learn how to use Debian on an Android phone.

As an economist, my specific needs are met by the Debian Science Economics packages. The specific needs of researchers in other fields may be met by the other Debian Science packages.

But willingness to learn is what's most important. Most obviously, great software and a great device will do nothing to help a person who is not willing to learn.

Less obviously, Debian is a great learning platform. Because Debian provides an open computing platform, open data analysis tools and a programming environment where everything is configurable, Debian is a great learning platform.

Running Debian on my phone has not just given me "a few more apps," it has also helped me understand the phone itself, learn basic networking and appreciate some of the different varieties of Unix.

And for a classroom econometrics project, running Debian on my phone helped me conduct a statistical analysis of the words I use in my text messages by tapping my phone's SMS database.

Debian's educational potential has also been tapped by the SkoleLinux project, which identifies open-source software suitable for use in schools and provides a configuration of Debian for educational networks.

And because Debian has supported the ARM processor (which powers most phones and tablets) since its 2.2 ("Potato") release in 2000, Debian already has a full range of software for the devices that people now carry in their pockets.

So I invite you to join me in this AnX11 Phone project, both for the software tools and for the learning platform that Debian puts at your fingertips.

Eryk Wdowiak
last updated: 17 October 2016