17 September 2008

Five reasons open source won’t work in mobile(?)

Filed under: fragmentation, leadership, OSiM — David Wood @ 9:44 pm

John Bruggeman, Chief Marketing Officer of Wind River, gave the stand-out presentation on Day One of OSiM (Open Source in Mobile) conference in Berlin today. It was an extraordinary piece of theatre, that captivated the audience – who were already in the midst of a feast of interesting and thought-provoking presentations from other speakers.

Officially entitled “How open source can drive your next device innovation breakthrough“, the majority of the presentation focused on an artful walkthrough of what John called “Five reasons why open source won’t work in mobile“.

These reasons were presented, with great eloquence and wit, as a wake-up call – “to uncover the ugly truth”.

Here’s the context. Speakers earlier in the day had outlined enchanting prospects for Open Source Linux to reach an installed base of 10 billion mobile devices within perhaps just five years (that’s right – it would involve many people having more than one device – such as separate mobile phones and MIDs). But John said that such prospects were illusory, and he gave the following reasons:

1. Linux phones will never be as good as the iPhone

Here, despite what you might first think, “good” means “good for application developers”. Apple iPhone application developers can be confident that, with just one version of their code, they can reach every member of the 15M+ iPhone user community. But in the Linux space, there are already 96 different major and minor variants (based on 10 different mobile Linux platforms). So application developers will have to work much harder, even to begin to reach all Linux phone users.

[Although John was exaggerating some of his rhetoric, for effect, he was quite clear that the figure of 96 was bona fide – and he said that his Wind River colleague Jason Whitmire would show a slide to justify that figure in another presentation later in the day. Unfortunately I missed that later presentation, since I was in another stream at that time.]

2. The mobile industry has been confused and misled by the Symbian Foundation announcement

Previously, open source endeavours in mobile were united (albeit in a highly fragmented sense – see point 1) around the vision of Linux being at the heart of any praiseworthy phones. But with the announcement that the Symbian platform will become open source, everyone has become confused.

[John actually said that “Symbian have polluted the open source message by telling everyone open source is easy” and “Symbian has a gigantic community, but in an evil and dirty way, Symbian is attracting children with candy”. As I said, it was an extraordinary piece of theatre – with lots of exaggeration for effect.]

3. Operators insist on hedging their bets

Because there are so many platform choices, without clear winners, operators are fearful of the risk of standardising on the wrong choices. That’s a big risk for them. So they bet on multiples – perpetuating the fragmented status quo.

4. Phone manufacturers won’t let go of the past

Phone manufacturers have built up huge amounts of legacy code, on numerous operating systems, and they insist on keeping on using these systems. Just like the operators, they fear the risk of giving up what turns out to be a winning system – and in this way, they keep the whole industry confused.

5. Too many people in the mobile value chain just don’t get it

Too many people have been confused by the word “free” and have thought that, because Linux itself has zero licensing cost, everything else of value in the emerging new mobile value chain should also be free of cost. They don’t realise that the real meaning of “free” is “free access”. This distracts people from being able to generate the new kinds of revenues that will strengthen the companies who have key roles to play in the open source mobile value chain.

In summary, “We are all to blame”.

After the wake-up call

Was that the end of the talk? (After all, due to previous sessions over-running, it was now well into the time allocated for the lunch session.)

Well, after some dramatic suspense, John went on to offer another set of five points – things that, whilst hard for us to do (he said), would make open source work in mobile after all:

  1. Hire new product marketers, who deeply understand the different world of open source;
  2. Hire new engineering directors, who (likewise) deeply understand the different world of open source. We need to realise that developing open source software solutions is fundamentally different from the processes in proprietary projects;
  3. Stop looking over your shoulder, and learn to innovate;
  4. Change your low cost platform into a high value play;
  5. Think outside the phone – there are incredible lessons that we can learn from adjacent and complementary markets.


My own view is that the proposed solutions are a lot less convincing than the list of problems. True, open source introduces and demands new thinking models. However, many of the disciplines of large-scale system software development apply in fairly similar ways across both closed-source and open-source projects.

As I see it, the real solution to platform fragmentation is clear platform leadership. Once it becomes clear to operators and handset manufacturers that a given platform is going to allow them strong opportunities for meaningful differentiation, speedy product development, good quality output, and significant revenues, they’ll naturally gravitate towards that platform, and other platforms will fade from the scene.

Remember the old adage: the best marketing tool is a winning product. That beats a bunch of pretty powerpoint slides anyday. If you don’t have a winning product, then you’ll inevitably struggle. Historically, the Symbian platform has been advanced by the visible market successes of a series of breakthrough phone models. (And the very first phone manufacturers who came to us, had all taken a close look at the Psion Series 5 PDA, and liked what they saw.) The longer term success of the Symbian platform will be determined by whether or not there are new breakthrough commercially successful phones in the next 12-24 months. With 92 separate products (*) under development by our customers at the last count, I see plenty of grounds for optimism.

And by the way, if anyone ever does hear me (or anyone else from Symbian) giving the impression that “open source is easy”, please pull me up. Building world-beating smartphones is hard, however you go about the business. Recognising that it is a hard task is, paradoxically, part of the beginning of the real solution. Sad to say, clinging to the hope that there’s an easy route to smartphone success has been the downfall of many a project.

Footnote: (*) Symbian uses the following principle to count the number of products under development (as opposed to those which are merely “prospects” or “roadmap items”):

Models in development are defined by Symbian as phones prior to launch where licensees

  1. have committed a minimum development team; and
  2. have a visible plan to launch; and
  3. have a minimum expected lifetime shipment for the phone.

Google says OHA operators must agree to user choice on apps

Filed under: OHA, OSiM, security — David Wood @ 7:56 am

Mike Jennings, Android Developer Advocate for Google, faced a range of questions about security from attendees at the OSiM (Open Source in Mobile) conference here in Berlin this morning.

He confirmed, several times that, for Android phones:

  • “Users don’t need anyone’s permission to install apps”
  • “Developers don’t need anyone’s permission to deploy apps”.

This vision is all the more attractive, given the further point that

  • “All apps can integrate deeply with the system”.

The model, as Mike Jennings explained, is that each app needs to tell users what capabilities they will use – for example, to make a phone call, or to access the address book – and the user will decide whether to permit the application.

Questions from the audience tried to drill into that point: won’t network operators seek additional control, to protect their network, to prevent malware, or to avoid revenue bypass?

The answer is, apparently, that all operators who sign up to the OHA (Open Handset Alliance) need to agree to allow the degree of openness described above.

According to this report from TechRadar, similar questions arose in a session in London yesterday morning:

When quizzed about operators by a keen developer who branded them ‘bastards’ for hating VoIP apps and the like, Jennings replied “there’s been a lot of technological advances with Android, but there’s a lot of political advances that have taken place for [some] carriers to go with our vision of being more open,” adding that carriers were now seeing that more development was needed.

I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this. It seems implausible to me that operators will be comfortable in trusting users to this extent – including those who may be inebriated while in the pub, or who fall into an over-trusting “yes, yes, yes” rut while installing apps.

27 July 2008

Understanding Open Source Licensing

Filed under: CPL, EPL, GPL, Open Source, OSiM, OSL — David Wood @ 8:18 pm

“What’s the best book to read for an introduction to Open Source?”

I’ve already given one set of answers to this question, in my article, “Clear thinking about open source“. One reply to that article – from Joel West, a writer and researcher on Open Innovation and Open Source whose advice I value – urged me to include one more book in my reading list: Lawrence Rosen’s “Open Source Licensing: software freedom and intellectual property law“. This weekend I’ve finished reading it. And indeed, I do now endorse it as being clearly written yet also highly insightful.

Initally, I tended to shy away from this book, instead preferring the book by Heather Meeker that I covered in my earlier article. Both books focus on open source licensing issues, but Meeker’s was published this year, whereas Rosen’s dates from 2004. So Rosen’s book makes no mention of GPL v3, or Sun’s experience with open-sourcing Java, or even the Eclipse Public License (EPL) which the Symbian Foundation is likely to adopt. That makes Rosen’s book appear out of date. However, I realised that one license which the book does cover (comprehensively) is the Common Public License (CPL) which is the precursor of the EPL and which differs from the EPL in very few places. Reassured, I dipped into the book – and then could hardly put it down.

In summary, I now recommend both the Meeker book and the Rosen book for their coverage of open source licensing. They complement each other nicely. There’s a bit of overlap, but also lots of good material in each book that you won’t find in the other.

Specifically, here are a few of the “aha”s or other learnings I took away from Rosen’s book:

1.) The ten principles of the Open Source Definition are actually quite hard to understand in places (this comment came as a relief to me, since I had been thinking the same thing).

2.) Patents and Copyrights should be approached as parallel sets of legal principle – the former applicable to ideas, and the latter to expressions of ideas. That’s a far better approach than initially just thinking about Copyrights, and then trying to squeeze in considerations about Patents at the end.

3.) One of the key differences between different open source licenses is in the treatment of patent licenses – and in the different circumstances in which patent licenses (and/or copyright licenses) can be withdrawn in the wake of various kinds of patent infringement suits. There’s a tricky balance that has to be drawn between the needs of both licensor and licensee concerning the continuing value of their respective patent portfolios.

4.) One piece of license evolution covered in the book – the difference between v2.0 and v2.1 of the Open Software License (OSL) – closely mirrors the principal difference between the CPL and the EPL: it’s a reduction in the circumstances in which a patent license can be withdrawn when a licensee brings a separate patent infringement case against the licensor.

5.) The insistence in GPL v2 about not being compatible with other licenses that introduce additional restrictions (even restrictions that the initial drafters of GPL v2 had not considered), is a real drawback of that license, since it unnecessarily hinders aggregation of code written under similar but different licenses. (Possible restrictions that have emerged more recently include provisions for defence against patent infringement lawsuits or to protect the licensor’s trademarks.)

6.) “… sections of the LGPL are an inpenetrable maze of technological babble. They should not be in a general purpose software license.” (page 124)

7.) Disclaimers of liability that are generally written into open source licenses may be overridden by general consumer legislation. Recognising this, the CPL (and hence the EPL) introduces a clause that allocates particular responsibility to “commercial contributors” to defend and indemnify all other contributors against losses, damages, or costs.

8.) One possible way for a company to make money from software is via the mechanism Rosen calls “Eventual Source”: code is released as open source after some delay period, but recipients can elect to pay an early access license fee to be able to work with the code (under a non-open source license) ahead of its release as open source.

I’ve still got lots of questions about open source licensing (for example, about the prospects for wider adoption of GPL v3, and about how successful Rosen’s own preferred OSL is likely to be in the longer run). I’ll be attending the Open Source in Mobile conference in Berlin in September, when I hope to find out more answers! (And no doubt there will be new questions too…)

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