Android Is the Most Closed Mobile Open Source Project – and Is One of the Most Successful

I happened to see a link to a study made by visionmobile (http://www.visionmobile.com), a market analysis and research company, made in July 2011 comparing different open source projects amongst a variety of predefined factors that constitute on how “open” a project is.

This is by far one of the most balanced studies I’ve seen comparing successful (and unsuccessful) well-known open source projects. Incidentally, visionmobile’s clients include HTC, Sony Ericsson, RIM, Microsoft, Intel, etc as part of it’s well known client lists.

Their quantification of “openness” between selected mobile open source projects (both successful and unsuccesful, single sponsor and multi sponsor) is called as the “Open Governance Index”.

The results were particularly interesting:

Among the 8 open source projects listed, Eclipse was the most “open” of all the projects, and Android was the last in the list. The research paper however noted that Android is also one of the most successful projects in the history of open source. It was contradictory enough that the paper called it the “Android Paradox”.

A number of interlinking factors were cited what made Android successful:
1. Google’s financial muscle and marketing.
2. Android’s “zero cost” subsidy by Google, since Google’s ultimate purpose is to drive more eyeballs to it’s ad inventory, which results to cheap handsets and low cost internet connectivity.
3. The adoption of the Open Source project by different manufacturers in order to compete against Apple’s iphone. The OEM industry generally poured billions of dollars into Android in order to compete with the Cupertino company’s product.

In retrospect, the research paper acknowledged that in the long term, platforms with the most open governance will be the most successful. Cited success stories are Eclipse, Linux, WebKit and Mozilla. Meego has the capability to become a successful project in the long term, in my opinion.

It also went to suggest that making a project open doesn’t necessary warrant a successful community builder. They stated that Software developers are human in nature and self-centered; and will only take interest in such a project if it provides value or addresses a common need – citing Linux, GTK or Webkit as an example (need for a vendor-neutral operating system, graphics software stack, browser engine). Symbian failed in this aspect; they failed to target developers (besides this, no proper development tools, complex contributions structure, etc).

What does this mean for Android and competing open source projects such as Meego?

Android was successful because aside from the factors stated above, when Android was released to the developers, the product was already a very advanced, and complete project (by and large due to Google’s famed engineering team):

However, there are some very good lessons for us to learn from how Google has managed the Android
open source project. First, Android was released as an open source project at a point in time where it
was already a very advanced, complete project. OEMs, operators and software developers could more
or less immediately use it to create derivative handsets and applications. Second, Google kickstarted a
developer buzz around the project with the $10 million Android Developers Challenge. Alongside
financial incentives, Google provided a very strong emotional message: that of opening application
development within a previously inaccessible mobile industry. Finally, Google’s speed of innovation
(five platform versions across 2010) outpaces any external innovation, and makes the ecosystem
entirely reliant on Google.

On the other hand, when Meego was announced, it was basically starting from scratch (okay, not exactly scratch, but the earliest versions of Meego were in the command line 😉 from my perspective) – try to imagine that they essentially went from a deb-based packaging solution (Maemo) to an rpm based one, and shifted from GTK/clutter to mainly Qt. This was one of the disadvantages I saw with the early development of Meego, and I have to say most likely hampered it’s early adoption (I do like the very open way the meetings are held though – I’ve been in one of the developer meetings in the past; but due to time zones it’s really difficult for me to attend it). It has gotten way better though; with the inclusion of non-Nokia/Intel people into the upper build team, the development process is getting to a point where I believe that this operating system will likely pick up pace and steam in the very near future (it has a bright future ahead in IVI systems in vehicles for example, and the upcoming N9 is positively received by many).


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