dw2

21 January 2009

2009 – end users modifying their mobile phone apps

Filed under: innovation, Open Source — David Wood @ 9:05 am

Here’s a scenario I expect to become increasingly common later this year.

(Elements in the following story are made up, of course, but they serve as placeholders for anticipated real people, real phones, and real apps.)

Vijaya is really fond of her new Nokia N225 based on the latest Symbian Platform Release, and is both intrigued and frustrated by features of the Jomo Player app that’s built into that phone. The app does some very clever things, but yet, Vijaya thinks it would serve her own needs better if some of the behaviour and functionality were changed. She also has ideas for tweaking the UI.

If this story were set in 2008, that would probably be the end of the story. Vijaya might write about her ideas on Facebook, and her friend Sunil might send them to someone he knows who has a job in the Nokia Devices R&D lab, but the chances are, the original developers of the Jomo Player app would be far too busy to pay attention to what appear to be idiosyncratic, quaint, or overly personalised change suggestions.

Now let’s make this story more interesting. Suppose that Vijaya already knows some Symbian C++. Maybe she took a course on it at the local technical university, which is enrolled into the Symbian Academy program. Or maybe she used to work for a phone manufacturer helping to customise their Symbian devices. So, either way, Vijaya starts writing an alternative Jomo Player app, starting from scratch. Her goal is to embody her own ideas on usability and feature set.

But guess what: her alternative Jomo Player falls far short of the performance and power of the built-in app. It’s tough to re-create a complex app. Although Symbian in 2008 is an open platform, with rich APIs, it’s not at all obvious to Vijaya how to emulate, in her version of the app, many of the features of the original, which she now comes to increasingly recognise as subtle and refined. Some of Vijaya’s friends band together to help, but they eventually abandon the project. The original app, they realise, is doing some incredibly complex things under the surface – and their attempted clone comes nowhere close to matching it. So, in 2008, that really is the end of the story.

Now let’s re-run this story sometime later on in 2009. The source code for the original Jomo Player app is available for download from the Symbian Foundation Mercurial code repository, under the open source Eclipse Public Licence. What’s more, the publicly available SDKs provide enough header files and libraries that Vijaya and her friends can rebuild the entire app. So the starting point is very different. Rather than struggling to create the whole app from scratch, Vijaya can fairly easily locate the parts of the source code she wants to change. As a result, she has a new version of the Jomo Player on her N225 in less than a week. As a result of using this app some more, with its altered features, she and her friends get yet more ideas – and then a major breakthrough flash. The new app quickly evolves into a dramatically better state.

Shortly afterwards, Vijaya makes her new app available via several application stores. It gets rave reviews. These reviews come to the attention of product managers in one or more phone companies. Both the N226 and a new Samsung phone build this version of the app into their ROMs, and reach millions of happy smartphone customers well before Christmas.

Vijaya started this whole process by scratching a personal itch. She wanted to improve a particular app running on her own phone. However, unexpectedly, she now has three different Symbian development houses competing to hire her into their teams.

In parallel, Mika has altered the Voton Reader app so that it’s more usable by his mother. (It turns out, afterwards, to be more usable by almost everyone!) Antony has added a whole series of shortcut keys to the Contacts app. And Alexa has produced a stunning new combination of two originally separate apps.

That’s the difference between what can be accomplished by an open platform (with published APIs) and by an open source platform (with published, buildable source code).

As 2009 progresses, the mobile phone platforms that publish their source code will increasingly play host to deeper and more interesting forms of innovation, than those mobile platforms which keep their source code closed. The phones from these open source mobile platforms (such as Symbian) will have the best Mojo Player, Voton Readers, and so on – not because the developers inside Symbian are cleverer than those in other mobile phone platform companies, but because these platforms can take greater advantage of the much wider pool of creative and clever people who are outside the company.

Footnote: Credit for key elements of this vision belong to some of my colleagues on the Symbian Foundation launch team, including William Roberts and Antony Edwards.

Disclaimer: The devil’s in the detail. Thoughtful readers will realise there are lots of important details missing from the above story. I look forward to returning to these details.

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15 Comments »

  1. Aameen:)

    I have query based on your story. If Jomo Player use some feature from platform and that feature is restricted to manufacturer say by using VendorId. How Vijaya will sign modified Jomo player as she does not own manufacturer VID?

    Comment by Vipin — 21 January 2009 @ 10:15 am

  2. Hi Vipin,

    >"If Jomo Player use some feature from platform and that feature is restricted to manufacturer say by using VendorId…"

    Manufacturers will have to weigh up their choices here, and understand both the pros and cons of restricting access to features in this way.

    Some manufacturers may opt for closer control, over some features, but will have to accept a consequent reduction in open innovation for these features.

    My expectation is that the manufacturers who opt for less control, will be the ones who see the greatest innovation, but of course it’s not black and white.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 21 January 2009 @ 11:02 am

  3. >>Some manufacturers may opt for closer control, over some features, but will have to accept a consequent reduction in open innovation for these features.<<

    Back to square one:(

    >>My expectation is that the manufacturers who opt for less control, will be the ones who see the greatest innovation<<

    Unfortunately manufacturer (Nokia for example) think that only they can develop good application and nobody should replace their application. Or may be there are under pressure from operators a.k.a biggest enemy of innovation.

    Anyway story is not as glorious as it looks from first read.

    BTW native apps are easily replacebele on Android however agreed it requires much more effort compared to Symbian as platform is evolving.

    Comment by Vipin — 21 January 2009 @ 11:38 am

  4. >"Unfortunately manufacturer (Nokia for example) think that only they can develop good application and nobody should replace their application. Or may be there are under pressure from operators a.k.a biggest enemy of innovation."

    I think this is much too harsh an assessment of both Nokia and operators. Nokia would not be in the process of opening up the entire Symbian Platform code, unless they believed in open innovation. Also, the founding board members and supporters of the Symbian Foundation contain a wide range of leading operators, who are committing to driving up innovation in applications and services.

    >"Anyway story is not as glorious as it looks from first read."

    But the story CAN be as glorious as this. However, there are lots of implementation details (including mindset changes) that need to happen on the way.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 21 January 2009 @ 11:56 am

  5. >>I think this is much too harsh an assessment of both Nokia and operators.<<

    Ok, I take my words back. Let's see how it goes in later half of this year. I will hold my assesment till then:)

    Comment by Vipin — 21 January 2009 @ 12:48 pm

  6. great article, it reminds me abouth the good old WRT54G story (Google: story of WRT54G), $60 router turned into $600 device in the transparent OSS communities.

    Comment by villee — 21 January 2009 @ 1:49 pm

  7. Hi David,

    IMHO, one of the details you left out is that without any involvement from Nokia/Symbian, the story can hardly turn real.

    Let me explain:
    – who will be in charge of checking Vijaya’s new features?
    – who will be in charge of testing that all previous functionalities of Jomo Player are still intact?
    – who will be in charge to merge Vijaya’s new features with Alice’s new features in a single version?
    – who will take the decision that Vijaya’s new features are worthy to get to the N226 but not Bob’s new features? And based on what? Polls on symbian.com? That will never reach the real users.

    In this sense, I’d love to see something like google labs features for gmail. A S-I-M-P-L-E way to add new features in my mobile and then based on how many users accept the new feature and their feedback, the feature could be moved to the official application.

    But still, without a number of dedicated people from Nokia/Symbian, I think it will be hard.

    As you said, the original developer will be far too busy to follow up…

    regards,v

    Comment by alfonso — 21 January 2009 @ 2:52 pm

  8. and to go from theory to practice, I can see how intriguing this possibility might be…

    I personally have lots of ideas any time I use an application…

    Am I the only one that would like my work outlook calendar in my phone but not viceversa?

    My phone is quite a holy place. Lots of personal stuff gets written there. Stuff I would not really like to store in company servers…

    but I can’t find a way to tell intellisync to sync the way I like, so I ended up keeping the two calendar separated. but clearly, it’s a loss for me.

    any one out there has an advice?!?

    Comment by alfonso — 21 January 2009 @ 2:56 pm

  9. Hi Alfonso,

    >"As you said, the original developer will be far too busy to follow up."

    But the critical difference is that, this time, Vijaya is submitting actual code, rather than just an idea for code. Second, Vijaya can point to her running app, rather than just her idea of how the app might change.

    But you’re right, there will need to be infrastructure to facilitate this kind of user innovation. It includes:

    *) advice to contributors on how to submit their contributions so that they have the best chance of acceptance

    *) test code for the app – which the package owner will be able to run, to check that nothing has been broken by the changes

    *) forums where users can discuss pros and cons of new features.

    Ultimately the decision on whether to incorporate a particular change will belong to the “package owner” for the relevant collection of Symbian Platform code. (The Symbian Platform is being split into around 100 packages.) Package owners that make good decisions will flourish!

    In case someone takes issue with the decision of a package owner, they’ll be able to create a fork, and the resulting app will be available to downloaders of the Symbian Platform to incorporate in their devices instead of the original.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 21 January 2009 @ 3:04 pm

  10. ‘Will Jomo player being open source?’ is my chanlenge about this story to make it universal. However, it’s probably true some open source applications will see forks and merge, as today in the open source community. How to keep track of those might be next decade chalenge.

    To Vipin, Nokia is not after alternative to their own software, there are already plenty exaples, such as calculator, agenda managment, VoIP clients and so on. Nothing prevent anybody to develop, redevelop an application. Some other manufacturers (Apple to not name them) forbid such activity, which is puzzling as some functionnalities are/could be better covered by alternatives, as mail, web browsing and so one.

    Just listen to the debate around Opera Mini vs Webkit based Nokia browser

    Comment by Mirmit — 21 January 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  11. Hi David,
    maybe, to think about this scenario during 2009 is quite optimistic since, now that 1/12 of 2009 has gone, we still cannot see a single line of Symbian source code available (and also no official plans are available to the community).

    Anyway, you depicted a “should be” crowdsourcing scenario but, I’m afraid, that IPR protection intentions and product design choice coming from Nokia or Operators will affect this scenario and eventually lessen the innovation coming from the community.

    It’s a sort of radical change that is expected by the industry actors.
    Anyway I’m quite sure that Nokia is inclined to change approach (at least they’ll be forced to do it).

    I’m more worried by the problem deriving from the Symbian opensourcing process.

    BR.

    Comment by meedabyte — 21 January 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  12. Hi Meedabyte,

    >"to think about this scenario during 2009 is quite optimistic since, now that 1/12 of 2009 has gone, we still cannot see a single line of Symbian source code available…"

    The basic timeline hasn’t changed since it was announced on 24th June last year. To quote from the initial press release:

    “The Foundation is expected to start operating during the first half of 2009”

    >"…(and also no official plans are available to the community).

    Watch this space 🙂

    And in the meantime, take another look at slides 9-12 of the presentation by Charles Davies at the Symbian Partner Event from December.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 21 January 2009 @ 5:31 pm

  13. David,

    you write:

    In case someone takes issue with the decision of a package owner, they’ll be able to create a fork, and the resulting app will be available to downloaders of the Symbian Platform to incorporate in their devices instead of the original.

    This may already have been considered by The Foundation, but one cautionary tale for this seems to be the S60WebKit “OSS” browser in S60, where people tried for quite a while to do just that: update the browser in older phones by a more recent version compiled from the latest sources in the WebKit repository – but failed for several practical reasons:

    – Some of the pre-installed libraries on the device could not be replaced because of DLL overwriting rules in Platsec, so they needed to be replaced by “side-by-side” alternatives. However, this was not how the core developers of the project worked, so many problems with this approach were not tested thoroughly.

    – The fork containing Nokia’s contributions to the project remained broken for a long time until eventually being abandoned, so the most recently builds were not actually buildable.

    – Some of the required libraries on the actual device changed their API, but as these APIs were not public (but just provided by ad hoc duplication of .lib and .h files), using these libraries on more recent devices was no longer possible.

    Eventually, the community effort was abandoned, and nothing ever came of it. Even the abandonment of the underlying Nokia fork only became public more or less by accident through a discussion on webkit-dev.

    Now for each of those the Foundation could offer a solution, but I believe it should serve as a reminder that for any sufficiently complex application the devil to realizing your vision may be in the details, and I would personally count the first foray into this area as a qualified failure (or rather, an opportunity to learn :-)).

    Comment by Marcus Groeber — 22 January 2009 @ 9:15 am

  14. Thanks for pointing out those online resources.
    My concept of a plan (I’m sure yours too – given the complexity of the plans you managed, I think) goes actually beyond “first half” or those 3 slides going around by months.

    Anyway the problem with SF opensourcing process in not “when” (given that it’s already going late thinking to competitors code releases) but “how”. That’s the point.

    It seems to me that, since more than six months, Nokia and others are debating internally without disclosing any big detail (problems/steering choices/etc..) to the community and this is contributing to raise concerns in the community itself about it (given also some controversial statement about potential adoption of linux as an alternative, made by Nokia people in the past months).

    Thanks again for your answers. It’s a privilege to exchange ideas with an insider at your level.
    All the best.

    Comment by meedabyte — 22 January 2009 @ 11:54 am

  15. Hi Marcus,

    >"one cautionary tale for this seems to be the S60WebKit OSS browser in S60…

    >"…failed for several practical reasons…

    >"Now for each of those the Foundation could offer a solution, but I believe it should serve as a reminder that for any sufficiently complex application the devil to realizing your vision may be in the details, and I would personally count the first foray into this area as a qualified failure (or rather, an opportunity to learn :-))."

    I completely agree. Both the successes and failures of this project have been extensively reviewed inside Nokia and Symbian.

    Hi meedabyte,

    >"My concept of a plan (I'm sure yours too – given the complexity of the plans you managed, I think) goes actually beyond "first half" or those 3 slides going around by months."

    We have a specific date in mind – and that hasn’t changed during the last six months. We’ll share more infomation shortly.

    >"It seems to me that, since more than six months, Nokia and others are debating internally…"

    Yes, there’s debate, but I would use the word “planning” as a better description.

    // dw2-0

    Comment by David Wood — 22 January 2009 @ 10:50 pm


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