John Bruggeman, Chief Marketing Officer of Wind River, gave the stand-out presentation on Day One of OSiM (Open Source in Mobile) conference in Berlin today. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre, that captivated the audience – who were already in the midst of a feast of interesting and thought-provoking presentations from other speakers.
Officially entitled “How open source can drive your next device innovation breakthrough“, the majority of the presentation focused on an artful walkthrough of what John called “Five reasons why open source won’t work in mobile“.
These reasons were presented, with great eloquence and wit, as a wake-up call – “to uncover the ugly truth”.
Here’s the context. Speakers earlier in the day had outlined enchanting prospects for Open Source Linux to reach an installed base of 10 billion mobile devices within perhaps just five years (that’s right – it would involve many people having more than one device – such as separate mobile phones and MIDs). But John said that such prospects were illusory, and he gave the following reasons:
1. Linux phones will never be as good as the iPhone
Here, despite what you might first think, “good” means “good for application developers”. Apple iPhone application developers can be confident that, with just one version of their code, they can reach every member of the 15M+ iPhone user community. But in the Linux space, there are already 96 different major and minor variants (based on 10 different mobile Linux platforms). So application developers will have to work much harder, even to begin to reach all Linux phone users.
[Although John was exaggerating some of his rhetoric, for effect, he was quite clear that the figure of 96 was bona fide - and he said that his Wind River colleague Jason Whitmire would show a slide to justify that figure in another presentation later in the day. Unfortunately I missed that later presentation, since I was in another stream at that time.]
2. The mobile industry has been confused and misled by the Symbian Foundation announcement
Previously, open source endeavours in mobile were united (albeit in a highly fragmented sense – see point 1) around the vision of Linux being at the heart of any praiseworthy phones. But with the announcement that the Symbian platform will become open source, everyone has become confused.
[John actually said that "Symbian have polluted the open source message by telling everyone open source is easy" and "Symbian has a gigantic community, but in an evil and dirty way, Symbian is attracting children with candy". As I said, it was an extraordinary piece of theatre - with lots of exaggeration for effect.]
3. Operators insist on hedging their bets
Because there are so many platform choices, without clear winners, operators are fearful of the risk of standardising on the wrong choices. That’s a big risk for them. So they bet on multiples – perpetuating the fragmented status quo.
4. Phone manufacturers won’t let go of the past
Phone manufacturers have built up huge amounts of legacy code, on numerous operating systems, and they insist on keeping on using these systems. Just like the operators, they fear the risk of giving up what turns out to be a winning system – and in this way, they keep the whole industry confused.
5. Too many people in the mobile value chain just don’t get it
Too many people have been confused by the word “free” and have thought that, because Linux itself has zero licensing cost, everything else of value in the emerging new mobile value chain should also be free of cost. They don’t realise that the real meaning of “free” is “free access”. This distracts people from being able to generate the new kinds of revenues that will strengthen the companies who have key roles to play in the open source mobile value chain.
In summary, “We are all to blame”.
After the wake-up call
Was that the end of the talk? (After all, due to previous sessions over-running, it was now well into the time allocated for the lunch session.)
Well, after some dramatic suspense, John went on to offer another set of five points – things that, whilst hard for us to do (he said), would make open source work in mobile after all:
- Hire new product marketers, who deeply understand the different world of open source;
- Hire new engineering directors, who (likewise) deeply understand the different world of open source. We need to realise that developing open source software solutions is fundamentally different from the processes in proprietary projects;
- Stop looking over your shoulder, and learn to innovate;
- Change your low cost platform into a high value play;
- Think outside the phone – there are incredible lessons that we can learn from adjacent and complementary markets.
My own view is that the proposed solutions are a lot less convincing than the list of problems. True, open source introduces and demands new thinking models. However, many of the disciplines of large-scale system software development apply in fairly similar ways across both closed-source and open-source projects.
As I see it, the real solution to platform fragmentation is clear platform leadership. Once it becomes clear to operators and handset manufacturers that a given platform is going to allow them strong opportunities for meaningful differentiation, speedy product development, good quality output, and significant revenues, they’ll naturally gravitate towards that platform, and other platforms will fade from the scene.
Remember the old adage: the best marketing tool is a winning product. That beats a bunch of pretty powerpoint slides anyday. If you don’t have a winning product, then you’ll inevitably struggle. Historically, the Symbian platform has been advanced by the visible market successes of a series of breakthrough phone models. (And the very first phone manufacturers who came to us, had all taken a close look at the Psion Series 5 PDA, and liked what they saw.) The longer term success of the Symbian platform will be determined by whether or not there are new breakthrough commercially successful phones in the next 12-24 months. With 92 separate products (*) under development by our customers at the last count, I see plenty of grounds for optimism.
And by the way, if anyone ever does hear me (or anyone else from Symbian) giving the impression that “open source is easy”, please pull me up. Building world-beating smartphones is hard, however you go about the business. Recognising that it is a hard task is, paradoxically, part of the beginning of the real solution. Sad to say, clinging to the hope that there’s an easy route to smartphone success has been the downfall of many a project.
Footnote: (*) Symbian uses the following principle to count the number of products under development (as opposed to those which are merely “prospects” or “roadmap items”):
Models in development are defined by Symbian as phones prior to launch where licensees
- have committed a minimum development team; and
- have a visible plan to launch; and
- have a minimum expected lifetime shipment for the phone.