1 February 2010

On the undue adulation for ‘You are not a gadget’

Filed under: books, collaboration, Open Source — David Wood @ 12:46 pm

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Jaron Lanier’s new book “You are not a gadget: a manifesto” is the undue adulation it has received.

For example, here’s what eminent theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says about the book (on its back cover):

Jaron Lanier’s long-awaited book is fabulous – I couldn’t put it down and shouted out Yes! Yes! on many pages.

Smolin goes on:

Lanier is a rare voice of sanity in the debate about the relationship between computers and we human beings.  He convincingly shows us that the idea of digital computers having human-like intelligence is a fantasy.

However, when I read it, far from shouting out Yes! Yes! on many pages, the thoughts that repeatedly came to my mind were: No! No! What a misunderstanding! What a ridiculous straw man! How poor! How misleading!

The titles of reviews of Lanier’s book on Amazon.com show lots more adulation:

  • A brilliant work of Pragmatic “Techno-Philosophy” (a five-star review)
  • Thought provoking and worthy of your time (ditto)
  • One of the best books in a long while (ditto)
  • A tribute to humanity (ditto)

That last title indicates what is probably going on.  Many people feel uneasy that “humanity” is seemingly being stretched, trampled, lost, and reduced, by current changes in our society – including the migration of so much culture online, and the increasing ubiquity of silicon brains.  So they are ready to clutch at straws, with the hope of somehow reaffirming a more natural state of humanity.

But this is a bad straw to clutch at.

Interestingly, even one of the five star reviews has to remark that there are significant mistakes in Lanier’s account:

While my review remains positive, I want to point out one major problem in the book. The account of events on p. 125-126 is full of misinformation and errors. The LISP machine in retrospect was a horrible idea. It died because the RISC and MIPS CPU efforts on the west coast were a much better idea. Putting high-level software (LISP) into electronics was a bad idea.

Stallman’s disfunctional relationship with Symbolics is badly misrepresented. Stallman’s licence was not the first or only free software licence…

My own list of the misinformation and errors in this book would occupy many pages.  Here’s just a snippet:

1. The iPhone and UNIX

Initially, I liked Lanier’s account of the problems caused by lock-in.  But then (page 12) he complains, incredibly, that some UI problems on the iPhone are due to the fact that the operating system on the iPhone has had to retain features from UNIX:

I have an iPhone in my pocket, and sure enough, the thing has what is essentially UNIX in it.  An unnerving element of this gadget is that it is haunted by a weird set of unpredictable user interface delays.  One’s mind waits for the response to the press of a virtual button, but it doesn’t come for a while.  An odd tension builds during that moment, and easy intuition is replaced by nervousness.  It is the ghost of UNIX, still refusing to accommodate the rhythms of my body and my mind, after all these years.

As someone who has been involved for more than 20 years with platforms that enable UI experience, I can state categorically that delays in UI can be addressed at many levels.  It is absurb to suggest that a hangover from UNIX days means that all UIs on mobile devices (such as the iPhone) are bound to suffer unnerving delays.

2. Obssession with anonymous posters

Time and again Lanier laments that people are encouraged to post anonymously to the Internet.  Because people have to become anonymous, they are de-humanised.

My reaction:

  • It is useful that the opportunity for anonymous posting exists;
  • However, in the vast bulk of the discussions in which I participate, most people sign their names, and links are available to their profiles;
  • Rather than a sea of anonymous interactions, there’s a sea of individuals ready to become better known, each with their own fascinating quirks and strengths.

3. Lanier’s diatribe against auto-layout features in Microsoft Word

Lanier admits (page 27) that he is “all for the automation of petty tasks” by software.  But (like most of us) he’s had the experience where Microsoft Word makes a wrong decision about an automation it presumes we want to do:

You might have had the experience of having Microsoft Word suddenly determine, at the wrong moment, that you are creating an indented outline…

This type of design feature is nonsense, since you end up having to do more work than you would otherwise in order to manipulate the software’s expectations of you.

Most people would say this just shows that there are still bugs in the (often useful) auto-layout feature.  Not so Lanier.  Instead, incredibly, he imputes a sinister motivation onto the software’s designers:

The real [underlying] function of the feature isn’t to make life easier for people.  Instead, it promotes a new philosophy: that the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves.

Lanier insists there’s a dichotomy: either a software designer is trying to make tasks easier for users, or the software designer has views that computers will, one day, be smarter than humans.  Why would the latter view (if held) mean the former cannot also be true? And why is “this type of design feature” nonsense?

4. Analysis of Alan Turing

Lanier’s analysis (and psycho-analysis) of AI pioneer Alan Turing is particularly cringe-worthy, and was the point where, for me, the book lost all credibility.

For example, Lanier tries to score points against Turing by commenting (page 31) that:

Turing’s 1950 paper on the test includes this extraordinary passage: “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children: rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates”.

However, referring to the context (Turing’s paper is available online here) indicates that Turing is, in the quoted passage, in the midst of seeking to engage with a number of different objections to his main hypothesis.  Each time, he seeks to enter into the mindset of people who might oppose his thinking.  This extract is from the section “The Theological Objection”.  Immediately after the section highlighted by Lanier, Turing’s paper goes on to comment:

However, this is mere speculation. I am not very impressed with theological arguments whatever they may be used to support. Such arguments have often been found unsatisfactory in the past. In the time of Galileo it was argued that the texts, “And the sun stood still . . . and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (Joshua x. 13) and “He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not move at any time” (Psalm cv. 5) were an adequate refutation of the Copernican theory. With our present knowledge such an argument appears futile. When that knowledge was not available it made a quite different impression.

Given a choice between the analytic powers of Turing and those of Lanier, I would pick Turing very nearly 100% of the time.

5. Clay Shirky and the latent cognitive surplus

Lanier’s treatment of Clay Shirky’s ideas is equally deplorable – sleight of hand again distorts the original message.  It starts off fine, with Lanier quoting an April 2008 article by Shirky:

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that  is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

In Shirky’s view, there’s lots of time available for people to apply to creative tasks, if only they would spend less time watching sitcoms on TV.  Lanier pokes nauseasting fun at this suggestion, but only (page 49) by means of changing the time available into “seconds of salvaged” time.  (Who mentioned seconds?  Surely Shirky is talking about people applying themselves for longer than seconds at a time.)  Lanier labours his point with a ridiculous hyperbole:

How many seconds of salvaged erstwhile television time would need to be harnessed to replicate the achievements of, say, Albert Einstein?  It seems to me that even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy – quadrillions of them, perhaps – and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one.

6. Friends and Facebook friends

Lanier really seems to believe (page 53) that people who use Facebook cannot distinguish between “Facebook friends” and “real world friends”.  He should talk more often to people who use Facebook, to see if they really are so “reduced” as he implies.

7. Lack of appreciation for security researchers

Lanier also rails (page 65) against people who investigate potential security vulnerabilities in software systems.

It seems he would prefer us all to live in ignorance about these potential vulnerabilities.

8. The Long Tail and individuals

Lanier cannot resist an ill-warranted attack on the notion of the long tail.  Describing a proposal of his own for how authors and artists could be rewarded for Internet usage of their material, Lanier makes the bizarre comment (page 101):

Note that this is a very different idea from the long tail, because it rewards individuals rather than cloud owners

Where did the assumption come from that writers who describe the Long Tail are only interested in rewarding “cloud owners” such as Amazon and Google?

9. All generations from Generation X onwards are somnolent

Lanier bemoans the blandness of the youth (page 128):

At the time that the web was born, in the early 1990s, a popular trope was that a new generation of teenagers, raised in the conservative Reagan years, had turned out exceptionally bland.  The members of “Generation X” were characterised as blank and inert.  The anthropologist Steve Barnett compared them to pattern exhaustion, a phenonemon in which a culture runs out of variations of traditional designs in their pottery and becomes less creative.

A common rationalisation is the fledgling world of digital culture back then is that we were entering a transitional lull before a creative storm – or were already in the eye of one.  But the sad truth is that we were not passing through a momentary lull before a storm.  We had instead entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will only escape it when we kill the hive.

My experience is at radical odds with this.  Through my encounters with year after year of graduate recruit intake at Symbian, I found many examples, each year, of youth full of passion, verve, and creativity.

The cloud which Lanier fears so much doesn’t stifle curiosity and creativity, but provides many means for people to develop a fuller human potential.

10. Open Source and creativity

Lanier complains that Open Source – and, more generally, Web 2.0 collaborative processes – has failed to produce anything of real value.  All it can do, he says (page 122 – and repeated numerous times elsewhere), is to imitate: Linux is a copy of UNIX and Wikipedia is a copy of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

But what about the UI creativity of Firefox (an open source web browser, that introduced new features ahead of the Microsoft alternative)?

How about the creativity of many of the applications on mobile devices, such as the iPhone, that demonstrate mashups of information from diverse sources (including location-based information).

Even to say that Wikipedia is derivative from Britannica misses the point, of course, that material in Wikipedia is updated so quickly.  Yes, there’s occasional unreliability, but people soon learn how to cross-check it.

It goes on…

For each point I’ve picked out above, there are many others I could have shared as well.

Lanier is speaking this evening (Monday 1st February) at London’s RSA.  The audience is usually respectful, but can ask searching questions.  This evening, if the lecture follows the same lines as the book, I expect to see more objections than usual.  However, I also expect there will be some in the audience who jump at the chance to defend humanity from the perceived incursions from computers and AI.

For a wider set of ojbections to Lanier’s ideas – generally expressed much more politely than my comments above – see this compendium from Edge.

My own bottom line view is that technology will significantly enhance human experience and creativity, rather than detract from it.

To be clear, I accept that there are good criticisms that can be made of the excesses of Web 2.0, open source, and so on.  For example, the second half of Nick Carr’s book “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google” is a good start.  (Andrew Orlowski produced an excellent review of Carr’s book, here.)  Lanier’s book is not a good contribution.

9 February 2009

Preparing for Barcelona

Filed under: challenge, collaboration, Open Source, party — David Wood @ 11:22 pm

What’s the issue that deserves the fullest attention of the best minds of the mobile industry representatives who will be gathering next week at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona?

That was one of the questions that I got asked in a quick-fire practice session last week, by a journalist who was employed for the morning to take part in a “media training session” for people from the Symbian Foundation launch team. The idea of the session was to bombard participants with potentially awkward questions, so we could test out various ways to respond. The questions ranged from tame to taxing, from straightforward to subtle, and from respectful to riotous.

One possible answer to the question at the top of this posting is that it is the issue of user experience which deserves the fullest attention. If users continue to be confronted by inflexible technology with unfriendly interfaces, they won’t get drawn in to make fullest use of mobile devices and services.

Another possible answer is that it is the issue of complexity which deserves the fullest attention. In this line of thinking, overly complex UIs are just one facet of the problem of overly complex mobile technology. Other facets include:

  • Overly difficult development cycles (resulting in products coming late to the market, and/or products released with too many defects), and
  • Overly exercised CPU cores and overly bloated software (resulting in products with poor battery life and high cost).

However, on reflection, I offer instead the following answer: it is the issue of collaboration which deserves the fullest attention. We need to find better ways for all the good resources of the mobile industry to be productively aligned addressing the same key risks and opportunities, rather than our good intentions ending up pulling in different directions. The problems that we collectively face (including the problems of poor user experience and overly complex software) are surely capable of resolution, if only we can find the way to work together on solutions, rather than our different approaches ending up contradiciting each other and confusing matters.

Open source, whereby people can look at source code and propose changes without having to gain special permission in advance, is part of the solution to improving collaboration. Open discussion and open governance take the solution further. Yet another step comes from collaboration tools that provide first-rate source configuration management and issue tracking.

But collaboration often needs clear leadership to make it a reality: a sufficiently compelling starting point on which further collaboration can take place. Without such a starting point, none of the other items I mentioned can hope to make a lasting difference.

That brings me back to the role of the Symbian Foundation. The Symbian Foundation is offering the entire mobile industry what it claims to be the best possible starting point for further collaboration:

  • A tried and tested codebase of 40 million lines of code;
  • Processes and disciplines that cope with pressures from multiple divergent stakeholders;
  • A visionary roadmap that is informed by the thinking of existing mobile leaders, and which spells out the likely evolution of key mobile technologies.

The Symbian Foundation will be holding a welcome party on Monday evening at Barcelona (8pm-11pm, 16th February). I’ve been allocated a small number of tickets to this party, to pass to selected bloggers, analysts, and other deep thinkers of the mobile industry. If you’d like to join this party to discuss the points I’ve made in this posting (or any of the other issues relevant to the formation of the Symbian Foundation), I set you this challenge. Please drop me an email, and provide a link to some of your online writings on applicable topics. (By the way, you don’t need to agree with my viewpoint. You just need to demonstrate that you’re going to enter into an open-minded, friendly, and constructive debate!)

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.

1 January 2009

Out with the old, in with the new

Filed under: infrastructure, Open Source — David Wood @ 10:57 am

The final two hours of 2008 were, for me, the most fraught and tense of any New Years Eve that I remember. A central London car journey that was scheduled to take only 15 minutes became a 2 hour long trauma. We made it to the restaurant 90 minutes late, just one minute before the gongs of Big Ben would ring in 2009.

On paper, the plans for the evening looked clear enough. My mum is staying a few days with us, down from Inverness, so my wife Hyesoon and I planned for the three of us to take in a traditional New Years Eve Viennese Waltz concert at the Barbican, from 7.30-9.15pm, followed by dinner in a classy Belgravia Thai restaurant, the Mango Tree, from 10.30-12.30pm. For some daft reason I decided the trip would be easiest if we drove the whole way. I thought that would allow the greatest flexibility, and that my trusted hi-tech TomTom satnav would guide me through any unfamiliar routes. And in any case, there should be plenty of time for the various parts of the journey: when I checked in advance, both TomTom and Google Maps said that the journey from the Barbican to the Mango Tree would take only 15 minutes. Or so I thought.

The first sign of trouble was in the initial part of the whole journey, from my home in Surbiton (South West London) to the Barbican (East Central London). TomTom predicted 45 minutes. We left home at 6.oo, giving us 90 minutes for that trip. I wasn’t sure of the way, but the traffic got thicker and thicker and slower and slower. And slower and slower. After several route recalculations and inspired changes of plan, we finally made it to our seats in the concert hall just as the audience were giving an applause to welcome the leader of the orchestra to the stage. Talk about last minute! Happily, the music was glorious.

Less happily, the concert which I had been told (by Barbican office staff, several days earlier) would finish at 9.15, actually went on till 10pm, by the time the second encore finished. We rushed to the car park to get out ahead of the main crowds, and set off on our anticipated 15 minute journey across central London.

However, the police had erected roadblocks all over the place, to force road traffic away from central London locations such as Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square. Time and again, I had to drive in a different direction to the one I intended. My car wasn’t the only one that was frustrated by the re-routings. The few roads that were still open were jammed to a snails pace. We rang the Mango Tree to say we might be, err, 20 minutes, or maybe even 40 minutes late. Come anyway, they said. We’re trying, I said. After painfully slow progress along Marylebone Road, Edgware Road and Park Lane, we finally reached the restaurant, just as the DJ was starting the countdown to the chimes signalling 1.1.2009. (Talk about last minute…)

Not unreasonably, the tempo and ambience in the restaurant by that time was a lot noisier than would normally accompany selecting starters from the menu. The staff did a fine job in the circumstances. In the end, I managed at least a grin as the sound system was belting out Mick Jagger’s “Honky Tonk Woman” at high volume. And Hyesoon and I got to our feet for some middle-aged boogie to Abba’s “Dancing Queen”. My mum said, it was quite an experience. Many thanks to both my mum and Hyesoon for being (mainly!) calm and supportive through all this trauma.

Being stuck for so long in slow-moving traffic gives you time for a lot of “if only” thinking. If only I had followed general advice and taken public transport rather than my car. If only I had realised that most routes would be blocked, and had started on a wide berth earlier. If only we had booked a venue closer to home. And, if only my satnav was hooked up with current road and traffic information, rather than relying on hard-wired map information that failed to match the reality of the moment. As a fan of Agile, that’s a lesson I ought to have learned already.

I wonder how many other aspects of life will, in 2009, suffer from being similarly misguided by automated or semi-automated responses that are based on out-of-date conceptual maps?

Our collective infrastructure is continuing to change in many ways, probably more than we expect. The market landscape is highly fluid. Items of our economic infrastructure that we thought we could take for granted, are falling away while our attention is focused elsewhere. Woe betide us if we stick on auto-pilot, trusting that our past processes are sufficient to guide us safely through the new terrain.

A few days ago, Kevin Kelleher forecast in GigaOm that 2009 could be “The year of the hacker“. In short, our tough new economic climate could result in new creativity from talented people who are struggling in their old jobs (or who lose their jobs completely):

I don’t mean to downplay how hard it is to be unemployed. But with tens of thousands of skilled tech workers being kicked into a hostile job market, the effects could prove to be positive for the Internet and its community over the long term…

I wonder what kind of creativity could be unleashed by workers who, though deprived of a steady paycheck, are freed from tedious tasks. Some could come up with new ideas that help vault the web to a more advanced stage. Others may make micro-contributions that are equally powerful in aggregate. Such creativity could then foster an entirely new generation of startups, which would eventually lure away some of those who had remained at steady jobs all along…

Of course, money will be hard to come by for such labors of love. Some of the best ideas since the last downturn have failed to find a viable business model. A gift economy would be an especially profitless form of innovation. But that notion lies at the heart of the hacking ethic.

Building on Kelleher’s ideas, Brad Feld of Mobius Venture Capital plausibly suggests that 2009 could see the “re-rise of open source“:

Kevin Kelleher’s article on GigaOm this morning titled 2009: Year of the Hacker made me think back to the rise of open source after the Internet crash of 2001. In the aftermath of the crash, many experienced software developers were out of work for a period of time ranging from weeks to years. Some of them threw themselves into open source projects and, in some cases, created their next job with the expertise they developed around a particular open source project.

We are still in a tense and ambiguous part of the current downturn where, while many developers are getting laid off, some of them are immediately being picked back up by other companies that are in desperate need for them. However, many other developers are not immediately finding work. If the downturn gets worse, the number of out of work developers increases.

If they take a lesson from the 2001 – 2003 time frame, some subset of them will choose to get deeply in an open source related project. Given the range of established open source projects, the opportunity to do this today is much more extensive than it was seven years ago. In addition, most software companies – especially Internet-related ones – now have robust API’s and/or open source libraries that they actively encourage third parties to work with for free. The SaaS-based infrastructure that exists along with maturing source code repositories add to the fun. The ability to hack something interesting together based on an established company’s infrastructure is omnipresent and is one of the best ways to “apply for a job” at an interesting company…

When plans for the Symbian Foundation were announced in June last year, we did not foresee the substantial economic downturn and the fact that many fine software developers would, through no fault of their own, find themselves out of work. This changed landscape, unexpectedly, makes it all the more important for software platforms to be sufficiently open to allow a wide number of developers to engage deeply and easily with the system. If the case was strong last June to open source the Symbian Platform, it has, unexpectedly, become even stronger in the intervening seven months.

If 2009 will be the year of the hacker and/or the year of the re-rise of open source, it changes the priorities of all software systems, to become friendlier to hackers and open source practitioners. The systems that can best leverage this new latent talent pool will be the ones that are the most likely to be flying high in 12 months time when the chimes of Big Ben ring out 2009 and herald in yet another new year. (But on that occasion, I will definitely not be driving anywhere near Central London!)

17 December 2008

Order from open source chaos

Filed under: chaos, Open Source, openness, partners — David Wood @ 11:57 am

Various videos and PDFs from the recent Symbian Partner Event are now available online.

One video that amply repays viewing is Jay Sullivan of Mozilla speaking on “Chaos and order: a Mozilla story”. You’ll find it on the presentations page of the SPE website.

Mozilla’s declared mission – “promote choice and innovation on the Internet” – has a lot in common with what Symbian is trying to do. One size does not fit all. Mozilla’s declared methods – involving open source, weak copyleft, and an independent foundation – also resonate with those of the Symbian Foundation. Even the sizes of the organisations are broadly comparable (Jay mentioned that Mozilla has around 175 employees).

Mozilla has been travelling along this particular road a lot longer than Symbian. This helps to explain why many Symbian people in the audience were hanging intently on every word in the presentation.

The questions that the presentation sought to answer included:

  • How can your organisation harness openness (where more and more things happen in public), rather than fight it?
  • How do you get your customers to support each other (peer-to-peer support), rather than always going to the centre for support?
  • How can a comparatively small company take advantage of wide public support to compete with huge existing players?
  • How can 75 developers inside the company leverage 100s of external daily contributors, 1000s of less frequent contributors, 10s of 1000s of overnight testers, and around one million beta testers?

In part, the answer to these questions is to use appropriate tools. For example, Mozilla relies heavily on the Bugzilla bug-tracking database.

In part, the answer comes down to attitude. Mozilla have adopted widespread openness of information sharing: they use wikis and newsgroups, which are almost all publicly accessible. (The exception is a small amount of personnel information.) Another example: Everyone in the world is able to dial into the company weekly status update meeting. (Jay commented: “We know our competition dials in”.)

What I personally found most interesting was Jay’s analysis of the potential chaos that ensues from this openness. For example, there can be a great deal of “noise” in the online comments from all sorts of people: it’s hard to filter postings that are based on reality, from those based on speculation or fantasy. There’s a constant trail of chat, with input from all over the world. Everyone can propose changes to the project. In such an environment, how can real work get done? How can you mediate among 50,000 people who all have ideas to improve a particular dialog box in the UI of an application? How to deal with strongly vocal minorities?

The answers were fascinating (and deeply practical):

  • Open doesn’t mean democracy
  • Decision-making is messy (but that doesn’t mean you should step back from openness)
  • Be prepared to tolerate some messiness
  • Treat disagreements as negotiations
  • Managers of the project need to drive towards definite outcomes – focusing on what is the right outcome rather than who has the right ideas
  • Organise a chorus (rather than a chaos), around local leaders
  • Although anyone can propose changes, you need to earn significant amounts of credibility before you are allowed to implement a change
  • Ensure quality through multiple reviews
  • Review for performance regressions as well as for functionality
  • Educate participants about the vision and the mission of the project, which in turn allows greater micro-level decisions
  • Guide participants towards using the appropriate communication channels for particular topics, and to back up their assertions with research and data
  • Create small focused teams with responsibility for specific areas of product interest
  • Create a common language, to allow discussions to be more productive
  • You still need to have clearly identified decision makers, even though you push as much of the discussion out “to the edge” as possible.

These are good thoughts to keep in mind in the midst of the inevitable turmoil as the Symbian Foundation places 40 million lines of code into open source (and makes corresponding changes in processes) over the next 18 months.

14 December 2008

The starfish and the spider

Filed under: books, catalysts, ecosystem management, Open Source — David Wood @ 11:43 pm

In my quest to understand the full potential of open and collaborative methods of working, I recently found myself re-reading “The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

I found this book to be utterly engrossing. I expect that its metaphor of the starfish vs. the spider will increasingly enter common parlance – the same way as “Tipping Point” did. In short:

  • A starfish has a fully de-centralised nervous system, and can survive and prosper when it undergoes an apparent “head-on” attack;
  • A spider has a CEO and a corporate headquarters, without which it cannot function.

The examples in the book show why there’s a great deal at stake behind this contrast: issues of commercial revenues, the rise and fall of businesses, the operation of the Internet, and the rise and fall of change movements within society – where the change movements include such humdingers as Slave Emancipation, Female Equality, Animal Liberation, and Al Qaeda.

There are many stories running through the book, chosen both from history and from contemporary events. The stories are frequently picked up again from chapter to chapter, with key additional insights being drawn out. I found some of the stories to be familiar, but others were not. In all cases, the starfish/spider framework cast new light.

The book contains many implications for the question of how best to inspire and guide an open source ecosystem. Each chapter brought an important additional point to the analysis. For example:

  • Factors allowing de-centralised organisations to flourish;
  • The importance of self-organising “circles”;
  • The significance of so-called “catalyst” personalities;
  • How successful de-centralised organisations often piggy-back pre-existing networks;
  • How centralised organisations can go about combatting de-centralised opponents;
  • Issues about combining aspects of both approaches.

Regarding hybrid approaches: the book argues that smart de-centralisation moves by both GE and Toyota are responsible for significant commercial successes in these companies. EBay is another example of a hybrid. Managing an open source community surely also falls into this category.

The book spoke personally to me on another level. As it explains, starfish organisations depend upon so-called “catalyst” figures, who may lack formal authority, and who are prepared to move into the background without clinging to power:

  • Catalysts enable major reactions to take place, that would otherwise remain dormant;
  • They trigger the deployments of huge resources from the environment;
  • They make things happen, not by direct power, but by force of influence and inspiration.

There’s a big difference between catalysts and CEOs. Think “Mary Poppins” rather than “Maria from Sound of Music”. That gave me a handy new way of thinking about my own role in organisations. (I’m like Mary Poppins, rather than Maria! I tend to move on from the departments that I build up, rather than remaining in place.)

3 November 2008

Mobile 2.0 keynote

Filed under: developer experience, fragmentation, integration, Open Source, vision — David Wood @ 11:32 pm

Earlier today, I had the privilege to deliver the opening keynote at the Mobile 2.0 event in San Francisco. This posting consists of a copy of the remarks I prepared.

The view from 2013

My topic is Open Source, as a key catalyst for Mobile Innovation 2.0.

Let’s start by fast forwarding five years into the future. Imagine that we are gathered for the 2013 “Mobile 2.0” conference – though the name may have changed by that time, perhaps to Mobile 3.0 or even Mobile 4.0 – and perhaps the conference will be taking place virtually, with much less physical transportation involved.

Five year into the future, we may look back at the wonder devices of today, 2008: the apparently all-conquering iPhone, the Android G1, the Nokia E71, the latest and greatest phones from RIM, Windows Mobile, and so on: all marvellous devices, in their own ways. From the vantage point of 2013, I expect that our thoughts about these devices will be: “How quaint! How clunky! How slow! How did we put up with all the annoyances and limitations of these devices?”

This has happened before. When the first Symbian OS smartphones reached the market in 2002 – the Nokia 7650, and the Sony Ericsson P800 – they received rave reviews in many parts of the world. These Symbian smartphones were celebrated at the time as breakthrough devices with hitherto unheard of capabilities, providing great user experiences. It is only in retrospect that expectations changed and we came to see these early devices as quaint, clunky, and slow. It will be the same with today’s wonder phones.

Super smart phones

That’s because the devices of five years time will (all being well) be so much more capable, so much slicker, so much more usable, and so much more enchanting than today’s devices. If today’s devices are smart phones, the devices of 2013 will be super smart phones.

These devices will be performing all kinds of intelligent analysis of data they are receiving through their sensors: their location and movement sensors, their eyes – that is, their cameras – and their ears – that is, their always-on recording devices.

They’ll also have enormous amounts of memory – both on-board and on-network. Based on what they’re sensing, and on what they know, and on their AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, they’ll be guiding us and informing us about all the things that are important to us. They’ll become like our trusted best friends, in effect whispering insight into our ears.

We can think of these devices as like our neo neo-cortex. Just as primates and especially humans have benefited from the development of the neo-cortex, as the newest part of our brains in evolutionary terms, so will users of super smartphones benefit from the enhanced memory, calculation powers, and social networking capabilities of this connected neo neo-cortex.

In simple terms, these devices can be seen as adding (say) 20 points to our IQs – perhaps more. If today’s smartphones can make their users smarter, the super smartphones of 2013 can make their users super smart.

Solving hard problems

That’s the potential. But the reality is that it’s going to be tremendously hard to achieve that vision. It’s going to require an enormously sophisticated, enormously capable, mobile operating system.

Not everyone shares my view that operating systems are that important. I sometimes hear the view expressed that improvements in hardware, or the creation of new managed code environments, somehow reduce the value of operating systems, making them into a commodity.

I disagree. I strongly disagree. It’s true that improvements in both hardware and managed code environments have incredibly important roles to play. But there remain many things that need to be addressed at the operating system level.

Here are just some of the hard tasks that a mobile operating system has to solve:

  • Seamless switching between different kinds of wireless network – something that Symbian’s FreeWay technology does particularly well;
  • Real-time services, not only handling downloads of extremely large quantities of data, but also manipulating that data in real time – decompressing it, decrypting it, displaying it on screen, storing it in the file system, etc;
  • All this must happen without any jitter or delay – even though there may be dozens of different applications and services all talking at the same time to several different wireless networks;
  • All this rich functionality must be easily available to third party developers;
  • However, that openness of developer access must coexist with security of the data on the device and the integrity of the wireless networks;
  • And, all this processing must take place without draining the batteries on the device;
  • And without bamboozling the user due to the sheer scale and complexity of what’s actually happening;
  • And all this must be supported, not just for one device, but in a way that can be customised and altered, supporting numerous different form factors and usage models, without fragmenting the platform.

Finally, please note that all this is getting harder and more complex: every year, the amount of software in a top-range phone approximately nearly doubles. So in five years, there’s roughly up to 32 times as much software in the device. In ten years, there could be 1000 times as much software.

Engaging a huge pool of productive developers

With so many problems that need to be solved, I will say this. The most important three words to determine the long-term success of any mobile operating system are: Developers, Developers, Developers. To repeat: the most important three words for the success of the Symbian platform are: Developers, Developers, Developers.

We need all sorts and shapes and sizes of developers – because, as I said, there are so many deep and complex problems to be solved, as the amount of software in mobile phone platforms grows and grows.

No matter how large and capable any one organisation is, the number of skilled developers inside that organisation is only a small fraction of the number outside. So it comes down to enabling a huge pool of productive and engaged developers, outside the organisation, to work alongside the original developers of the operating system – with speed, creativity, skill, and heartfelt enthusiasm. That’s how we can collectively build the successful super smart phones of the future.

Just two weeks ago, the annual Symbian Smartphone Show put an unprecedented focus on developers. We ran a Mobile DevFest as an integral part of the main event. We announced new developer tools, such as the Symbian Analysis Workbench. We will shortly be releasing new sets of developer APIs (application programming interfaces) in new utility libraries, to simplify interactions with parts of the Symbian programming system that have been found to cause the most difficulty – such as text descriptors, two phase object construction and cleanup, and active objects.

The critical role of open source

But the biggest step to engage and enthuse larger numbers of developers is to move the entire Symbian platform into open source.

This will lower the barriers of entry – in fact, it will remove the barriers of entry. It will allow much easier study of the source code, and, critically, much easier participation in the research and creation of new Symbian platform software. We are expecting a rapid increase in collaboration and innovation. This will happen because there are more developers involved, and more types of developers involved.

That’s why the title of my talk this morning is “Open Source: Catalyst for Mobile Innovation 2.0”. The “2.0” part means greater collaboration and participation than ever before: people not just using the code or looking at the code, but recommending changes to it and even contributing very sizeable chunks of new and improved code. The Open Source part is one of the key enablers for this transformation.

Necessary, but not sufficient

However, Open Source is only one of the necessary enablers. Open Source is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient. There are two others:

  1. A stable and mature software base, with reliable processes of integration, which I’ll talk more about in a moment;
  2. Mastery of the methods of large-scale Agile development, allowing rapid response to changing market needs.

Fragmentation inside an operating system

Here’s the problem. Fragmentation is easy, but Integration is hard.

Fragmentation means that different teams or different customers pull the software in different directions. You end up, in the heat of development in a fast-moving market, with different branches, that are incompatible with each other, and which can’t be easily joined together. The result is that solutions created by developers for one of these branches, fail to work on the other branches. A great deal of time can be wasted debugging these issues.

Here, I speak from bitter experience. During the rapid growth days of Symbian, we lost control of aspects of compatibility in our own platform – despite our best efforts. For example, we had one version called 7.0s and another called 7.0, but lots of partners reported huge problems moving their solutions between these two versions. Because of resulting project delays, major phones failed to come to the market. It was a very painful period.

Nowadays, in the light of our battle-hardened experience, Symbian OS is a much more mature and stable platform, and it is surrounded and supported by an ecosystem of very capable partners. In my view, we have great disciplines in compatibility management and in codeline management.

The result is that we have much better control over the integration of our platform. That puts us in a better position to handle rapid change and multiple customer input. That means we can take good advantage of the creativity of open source, rather than being pulled apart by the diverse input of open source. Other platforms may find things harder. For them, open source may bring as many problems as it brings solutions.

Fragmentation across operating systems

This addresses the fragmentation inside a single operating system. But the problem remains of fragmentation across different operating systems.

Although competition can be healthy, too many operating systems result in developers spreading their skills too thinly. The mobile industry recognises that it needs to consolidate on a smaller number of mobile operating systems moving forwards. The general view is that there needs to be consolidation on around three or (at the most) four advanced mobile operating systems. Otherwise the whole industry ends up over-stretched.

So, which will be the winning mobile operating systems, over the next five years? In the end, it will come down to which phones are bought in large quantities by end users. In turn, the choices offered to end users are strongly influenced by decisions by phone manufacturers and network operators about which operating systems to prefer. These companies have four kinds of issues in their minds, which they want to see mobile operating systems solve:

  • Technical issues, such as battery life, security, and performance, as well as rich functionality;
  • Commercial issues, such as cost, and the ability to add value by differentiation;
  • Political issues, in which there can be a perception that the future evolution of an operating system might be controlled by a company or organisation with divergent ulterior motivations;
  • Reliability issues, such as a proven track record for incrementally delivering new functionality at high quality levels in accordance with a pre-published roadmap.

A time for operating systems to prove themselves

Again, which will be the winning operating systems, over the next five years? My answer is that is slightly too early to say for sure. The next 12-18 months will be a time of mobile operating systems proving themselves. Perhaps three or four operating systems will come through the challenge, and will attract greater and greater support, as customers stop hedging their bets. Others will be de-selected (or merged).

For at least some of the winning smartphone operating systems, there will be an even bigger prize, in the subsequent 2-3 years. Provided these operating systems are sufficiently scalable, they will become used in greater and greater portions of all phones (not just smartphones and high-end feature phones).

Proving time for the Symbian Foundation platform

Here’s how I expect the Symbian platform to prove itself in the next 12-18 months. Our move to open source was announced in June this year, and we said it could take up to two years to complete it. Since then, planning has been continuing, at great speed. Lee Williams, current head of the S60 organisation in Nokia, and formerly of Palm Inc and Be Inc, has been announced as the Executive Director of the Symbian Foundation.

The Foundation will make its first software release midway through the first half of 2009. Up till that point, access to internal Symbian OS source code is governed by our historical CustKit Licence and DevKit Licence. There’s a steep entry price, around 30,000 dollars per year, and a long contract to sign to gain access, so the community of platform developers has been relatively small. From the first Symbian Foundation release, that will change.

The source code will be released under two different licenses. Part will be open source, under the Eclipse Public Licence. This part has no licence fee, and is accessible to everyone. The other part will be community source, under an interim Symbian Foundation Licence. This is also royalty free, but there is a small contract that companies have to sign, and a small annual fee of 1,500 dollars. I expect a large community to take advantage of this.

This interim community source part will diminish, in stages, until it vanishes around the middle of 2010. By then, everything will be open source. We can’t get there quicker because there are 40 million lines of source code altogether, and we need to carry out various checks and cleanups and contract renegotiations first. But we’ll get there as quickly as we can.

There’s one other important difference worth highlighting. It goes back to the theme of reducing fragmentation. Historically, there have been three different UIs for Symbian OS: S60, UIQ, and MOAP(S) used in Japan. But going forwards, there will only be one UI system: S60, which is nowadays flexible enough to support the different kinds of user models for which the other UI systems were initially created.

To be clear, developers don’t have to wait until 2010 before experimenting with this software system. Software written to the current S60 SDK will run fine on these later releases. We’ll continue to make incremental compatible releases throughout this time period.

What you should also see over this period is that the number of independent contributors will increase. It won’t just be Nokia and Symbian employees who are making contributions. It will be like the example of the Eclipse Foundation, in which the bulk of contributions initially came from just one company, IBM, but nowadays there’s a much wider participation. So also for the Symbian Foundation, contributions will be welcome based on merit. And the governance of the Foundation will also be open and transparent.

The view from 2013

I’ll close by returning to the vision for 2013. Inside Symbian, we’ve long had the vision that Symbian OS will be the most widely used software platform on the planet. By adopting the best principles of open source, we expect we will fulfil this vision. We expect there will in due course be, not just 100s of millions, but billions of great devices, all running our software. And we’ll get there because we’ll be at the heart of what will be the most vibrant software ecosystem on the planet – the mobile innovation ecosystem. Thank you very much.

21 October 2008

Open Source: necessary but not sufficient

Filed under: Open Innovation, Open Source, Smartphone Show — David Wood @ 5:57 am

Building the software system for complex smartphone products is one of the toughest engineering challenges on the planet. The amount of software in a high-end phone has been roughly doubling, each year, for the last ten years. In order to reap market success, smartphone software has to meet demanding requirements for performance, reliability, and usability. What’s more, to avoid missing a fast-moving market window, the software needs to pass through its integration process and reach maturity in a matter of months (not years). As I said, it’s a truly tough problem.

[Author’s note: a version of this article is appearing in print today, to mark the first day of the Symbian Smartphone Show. I thought that people might like to read it online too.]

In broad terms, there are two ways in which a company can seek to solve this kind of tough problem:

  1. Seek to keep careful control of the problem, and rely primarily on resources that are under the tight direction and supervision of the company;
  2. Seek to take advantage of resources that are outside the control of the company.

The attraction of the first approach is that it’s easier to manage. The attraction of the second approach is that, in principle, the company can take better advantage of the potential innovation created by users and developers that are outside the company.

Writers and academics who study how innovation works in industry sometimes use the terms “closed innovation” and “open innovation” to describe these two approaches. In his pioneering book “Open innovation, the new imperative for creating and profiting from technology”, Henry Chesbrough lists the following contrasts between open innovation and closed innovation:

The “closed innovation” mindset:

  1. The smart people in our field work for us
  2. To profit from R&D we must discover it, develop it, and ship it ourselves
  3. If we discover it ourselves, we will get to the market first
  4. The company that gets an innovation to market first will win
  5. If we create the most and the best ideas in the industry, we will win
  6. We should control our IP, so that our competitors don’t profit from our ideas.

The “open innovation” mindset:

  1. Not all the smart people work for us. We need to work with smart people inside and outside our company
  2. External R&D can create significant value; internal R&D is needed to claim some portion of that value
  3. We don’t have to originate the research to profit from it
  4. Building a better business model is better than getting to market first
  5. If we make the best use of internal and external ideas, we will win
  6. We should profit from others’ use of our IP, and we should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our own business model.

In the modern world of hyper-complex products, easy communication via the Internet and other network systems, and the “Web 2.0” pro-collaboration zeitgeist, it is easy to understand why the idea of open innovation receives a lot of support. It sounds extremely attractive. However, the challenge is how to put these ideas into practice.

That’s where open source enters the picture. Open source removes both financial and contractual barriers that would otherwise prevent many users and external developers from experimenting with the system. For this reason, open source can boost open innovation.

However, in my view, there’s a lot more to successful open innovation than putting the underlying software platform into open source. We mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that, because both these expressions start with the same adjective (“open”), the two expressions are essentially equivalent. They’re not.

Indeed, people who have studied open innovation have reached the conclusion that there are three keys to making open innovation work well for a firm (or platform):

  • Maximising returns to internal innovation
  • Incorporating external innovation in the platform
  • Motivating a supply of external innovations.

Let’s dig more deeply into the second and third of these keys.

Incorporating external innovation in the platform

The challenge here isn’t just to stimulate external innovation. It is to be able to incorporate this innovation into the codelines forming the platform. That requires the platform itself to be both sufficiently flexible and sufficiently stable. Otherwise the innovation will fragment the platform, or degrade its ongoing evolution.

It also requires the existence of significant skills in platform integration. Innovations offered by users or external developers may well need to be re-engineered if they are to be incorporated in the platform in ways that meet the needs of the user community as a whole, rather than just the needs of the particular users who came up with the innovation in question.

  • This can be summarised by saying that a platform needs skills and readiness for software codeline management, if it is to be able to productively incorporate external innovation.

Codeline management in turn depends on skills in:

  • Codeline gate-keeping: not accepting code that fails agreed quality criteria – no matter how much political weight is carried by the people trying to submit that code
  • Reliable and prompt code amalgamation: being quick to incorporate code that does meet the agreed criteria – rather than leaving these code submissions languishing too long in an in-queue
  • API management, system architecture, and modular design – to avoid any spaghetti-like dependencies between different parts of the software
  • Software refactoring – to be able to modify the internal design of a complex system, in the light of emerging new requirements, in order to preserve its modularity and flexibility – but without breaking external compatibility or losing roadmap momentum.

Motivating a supply of external innovations

The challenge here isn’t just to respond to external innovations when they arise. It is to give users and external developers sufficient motivation to work on their ideas for product improvement. These parties need to be encouraged to apply both inspiration and perspiration.

  • Just as the answer to the previous issue is skilled software codeline management, the answer to this issue is skilled ecosystem management.

Ecosystem management involves a mix of education and evangelism. It also requires active listening (also known as “being open-minded”), and a willingness by the platform providers to occasionally tweak the underlying platform, in order to facilitate important innovations under consideration by external parties. Finally it requires ensuring that third parties can receive suitable rewards for their breakthroughs – whether moral, social, or financial. This involves the mindset of “growing the pie for mutual benefit” rather than the platform owner seeking to dominate the value for its own sake.

But neither software codeline management nor ecosystem management comes easy. Neither fall out of the sky, ready for action, just by virtue of a platform being open source. Nor can these skills be acquired overnight, by spending lots of money, or hiring lots of intrinsically smart people.

Conclusion: On account of a legacy of more than ten years of trial and error in building and enhancing both a mobile platform and an associated dynamic ecosystem, the Symbian Foundation should come into existence with huge amounts of battle-hardened expertise in both software codeline management and ecosystem management. On that basis, I expect the additional benefits of open source will catalyse a significant surge of additional open innovation around the Symbian Platform. In contrast, other mobile platforms that lack this depth of experience are likely to find that open source brings them grief as much as it brings them potential new innovations. For these platforms, open source may result in divisive fragmentation and a dilution of ecosystem effort.

Footnote: For more insight about open innovation, I recommend the writings of Henry Chesbrough (mentioned above), Wim Vanhaverbeke, and Joel West.

2 October 2008

Open source religion

Filed under: free software, Open Source — David Wood @ 9:52 pm

Roger Nolan, my long-time former colleague from both Psion and Symbian, raised some challenging points in his recent piece “Symbian’s open source challenge” on the VisionMobile blog. As Roger sees it, the challenge for Symbian is to get the best out of open source without becoming so fixated by the idea of open source that we fail to address the burning requirement for improved user experience. The worry is that technological or process considerations will get in the way of creating simply delightful products.

In Roger’s own words – comparing the possible future evolution of Symbian software with the history of Nokia’s Linux-based “maemo” platform for mobile Internet tablets:

Sadly Maemo is … driven from a technology soapbox. This time, it’s not a features arms race, it’s open-source-or-die. The Maemo team did not sit down and say “Let’s build a great UI for an internet tablet” they sat down and said “What can we do with open source” – open source is the religion, not ease of use and making great devices that are delightful to use.

As Symbian becomes the Symbian foundation and transitions to an open source model, I hope that the open source community will take some of the burden of implementing every last codec and piece of middle-ware and the Symbian foundation can focus on UIs and ease of use. Unfortunately, I fear that they will be overcome following Maemo’s open-source religion.

In other words, is Symbian going on an free software crusade, or are we adopting open source for solidly pragmatic reasons?

My answer is that it’s a bit of both, but with a strong emphasis on the pragmatic side of the scale.

The archetypal free software crusader, of course, is Richard Stallman. The 2002 book “Free as in Freedom” by Sam Williams is a sympathetic, interesting and easy-to-read account of Stallman and his very considerable impact on the world of software – but it’s no hagiography.

The early chapters in the book take a friendly approach to Stallman’s personal idiosyncracies. Reading these chapters, it’s easy to develop a strong liking for this pioneering crusader. To my surprise, I found a lot of resonance between Stallman’s life experiences and, in smaller scale, my own; for example, we share backgrounds as prodigious mathematicians who were not afraid to be outsiders. (And it seems we’re both interested in life extension.)

The last few chapters provide a kind of balance, by highlighting some of the problems caused within the Free and Open Source movements by Stallman’s inflexibility, apparent micro-management, and under-developed project management skills.

The narrative in the book jumps around a lot, moving backwards and forwards in time all over the place. Some readers may find that distracting, but I liked it, since it helps to show the remarkable wholeness and integrity to Stallman’s conceptions.

The entire text of this book is available online at http://www.faifzilla.org/. Chapter 8 contains a stark example of the clash between the “quasi-religious” approach and the pragmatic one:

Stallman says competitive performance and price, two areas where free software operating systems such as GNU/Linux and FreeBSD already hold a distinct advantage over their proprietary counterparts, are red herrings compared to the large issues of user and developer freedom.“It’s not because we don’t have the talent to make better software,” says Stallman. “It’s because we don’t have the right. Somebody has prohibited us from serving the public. So what’s going to happen when users encounter these gaps in free software? Well, if they have been persuaded by the open source movement that these freedoms are good because they lead to more-powerful reliable software, they’re likely to say, ‘You didn’t deliver what you promised. This software’s not more powerful. It’s missing this feature. You lied to me.’ But if they have come to agree with the free software movement, that the freedom is important in itself, then they will say, ‘How dare those people stop me from having this feature and my freedom too.’ …”

…the underlying logic of Stallman’s argument – that open source advocates emphasize the utilitarian advantages of free software over the political advantages – remains uncontested. Rather than stress the political significance of free software programs, open source advocates have chosen to stress the engineering integrity of the hacker development model. Citing the power of peer review, the open source argument paints programs such as GNU/Linux or FreeBSD as better built, better inspected and, by extension, more trustworthy to the average user…

When an audience member asks if, in shunning proprietary software, free software proponents lose the ability to keep up with the latest technological advancements, Stallman answers the question in terms of his own personal beliefs. “I think that freedom is more important than mere technical advance,” he says. “I would always choose a less advanced free program rather than a more advanced nonfree program, because I won’t give up my freedom for something like that. My rule is, if I can’t share it with you, I won’t take it.”

Such answers, however, reinforce the quasi-religious nature of the Stallman message. Like a Jew keeping kosher or a Mormon refusing to drink alcohol, Stallman paints his decision to use free software in the place of proprietary in the color of tradition and personal belief. As software evangelists go, Stallman avoids forcing those beliefs down listeners’ throats. Then again, a listener rarely leaves a Stallman speech not knowing where the true path to software righteousness lies.

Now the nearest thing to a Symbian religion is the published list of our corporate values: Excellence, Innovation, Passion, Integrity, Collaboration, People. We take these values very seriously – as we do our vision – that Symbian OS will be the most widely used software platform on the planet.

Questions such as the extent of our adoption of open source, or usage of proprietary software, are, in the end, weighed up against that list of values. Open source will lead, we believe, to greater collaboration, and to more innovation. That’s a good reason to support it. But it’s not an end in itself.

Indeed, adopting selected open source principles is only one of the big change initiatives that are taking place in Symbian. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re also adopting selected principles of enterprise agile. What’s more, we’re looking forward to significantly closer inter-working between the development teams in Symbian and in S60, which will allow faster delivery of important new technology to the market. And last – but definitely not least – there’s a whole series of measures to enable improved user experience on Symbian-powered phones. The UI that’s on the just-announced Nokia 5800 XpressMusic device is a significant step in this direction.

22 September 2008

Open source coexistence with marvellous non-free add-ons

Filed under: business model, Open Source, partners — David Wood @ 5:25 pm

“Has Symbian thought open source through?” That’s the question David Meyer of ZDNet asks this morning. David explains the context of his question:

Last week I visited Symbian’s labs here in London. The assembled hacks were shown some very interesting stuff, such as what could be done with a quad core mobile chipset… There was also some cool stuff with mobile-based audio EQ, which always pleases me.

We also got shown some of the fruits of Symbian’s work with Scalado on the graphics front. The engineer demonstrated very quick loading of and zooming into a 21-megapixel picture, which was very impressive but raised … unanswered questions: … what precisely is to happen with this valuable work once Symbian goes open source?

Given that [going open source] will involve stripping out all the third-party, proprietary stuff that can’t go open source, why is Symbian still bothering with such partnerships?

Here’s my answer. First, I’m sure that there are aspects of going open source which we in Symbian have yet to think through properly. Moving some 400,000 files of source code into open source is bound to pose a whole host of unexpected problems. However, this particular question is one that has received considerable thought.

The highly impressive Scalado mobile imaging software which Symbian licensed earlier this year is only one of a large number of add-on or plug-in solutions which are available, either as part of Symbian OS itself, or as a pre-integrated supplementary solution. For obvious reasons, I won’t say anything more about Scalado, but I’ll address the general question of an add-on solution A from vendor V, which may be included in a phone created by customer C of Symbian. Suppose that A is currently subject to a license fee F, which is payable:

  • Either from C direct to V,
  • Or from Symbian to V, with the costs in this case currently being covered as part of the Symbian OS licence fee paid by C to Symbian.

So what happens to this licence fee F once the Symbian platform becomes open source, and there’s no longer any licence fee for Symbian platform?

It turns out there are quite a few options available.

For example, the Symbian platform may exclude A, but may instead include a more basic version A0. This will be good enough for many purposes – and will allow customers to build many kinds of successful phones. But customers who want particularly responsive or feature-rich behaviour in the area covered by A will be able to pay fee F directly to V, and will apply A in place of A0 in their phones. So long as the code for A is independent of the Symbian platform code for A0 (in legal terms, so long as A is not a derivative work of A0), there’s no obligation on V to licence their code using the EPL applicable to the Symbian platform itself. That is, they won’t need to make their source code available.

Is this somehow at variance with the motivation of Symbian in creating an open source platform? It depends what you think the primary motivation is for this move. If you think that motivation is to drive out all cost from phones, you may be surprised by this option. However, once you realise that the main drivers are actually to lower barriers of entry and experimentation, to boost innovation, to deepen collaboration, to raise quality, and to accelerate time-to-market, you won’t be so surprised. Open source does not imply low-value! And nor does open source imply that anything which builds on top of it, needs to be zero cost.

Another option is that vendor V will make A available royalty-free as part of the open source platform, but will earn revenues:

  • From consultancy work in the area of A
  • Or, from making available a chargeable new version A1 that provides even better performance and/or new features.

In short, there will be plenty of ways for creative partner companies to continue to earn handsome income from their add-on and plug-in solutions to Symbian platform software.

I’ll close by returning to the last part of the initial question: “…why is Symbian still bothering with such partnerships?” It’s because these partnerships collectively generate a huge quantity of impressive add-on and plug-in solutions, which allow our customers to customise and optimise their phones in numerous ways. And that’s good for everyone.

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