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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Community dynamics in mobile open source

[How do open source communities work? Research Director Andreas Constantinou discusses how community dynamics can be mapped and better understood].


Open source is becoming a very hot topic in the mobile industry. Apple’s WebKit has disrupted the mobile browser business. Mobile Java has gone open source by Sun, Motorola and Google. Linux is the new way to build an in-house OS that combines low ownership cost with roadmap control. Last but not least, Google is commoditising the OS business with Android.

Handset OEMs are using Linux and browser open source components – and those that don’t will unavoidably do soon. Mobile operators are considering use of open source for next-generation service delivery via WebKit. Software vendors are realising they need to figure out how to exploit the many open source projects out there and even use open source as a key component of their strategy (see Funambol, Volantis, Sun, Trolltech, Mozilla, …).

However, open source is a very complex subject matter, particularly relating to the undocumented business models, the diversity of open source cultures, the complexity of open source licenses, current best practices and case studies on how are mobile industry players exploiting open source to make or save money.

Mapping open source community dynamics Understanding open source communities is one of the most fascinating topics. Communities are defined by two major attributes: – the type of license: a license is primarily characterised by the strength of the copyleft obligations (how use and modification rights are passed on along with the code). – how contributions are managed and accepted: code contributions into open source project can be managed loosely, by a moderator, by members-only or even by a single commercial entity.

To compare the dynamics of popular mobile open source communities, the next chart maps 11 such communities based on these two attributes – listed are the Linux kernel, GTK, Maemo, Mozilla, Eclipse, Funambol, LiMo, Qt, Java phoneME, WebKit and Android. The chart is from VisionMobile’s 360 degree workshop on mobile open source.

For an updated version of this chart see the article Mapping open source into mobile: who, where and how.

Mapping open source communities

Two patterns emerge by observing this chart.

Firstly, weak copyleft licenses are most popular in open source projects used within the mobile industry – this is in contrast to non-mobile open source projects, where around 50% of total projects use a strong copyleft (i.e. GPL) license.

Secondly, open source communities are anything but the ad-hoc formed, loosely-coordinated, grassroots movements formed around altruist developers working for free. Most successful open source communities are sponsored by commercial entities, and several are controlled by single companies. WebKit is perhaps the most striking example; while WebKit browser core components are used by Nokia, Adobe, Google and Motorola under a LGPL license, Apple is effectively in control of the main source code branch, based on the gravitas of Apple’s contributions and the cost of maintaining a fork away from the tip of the tree.

Perhaps an even more interesting observation is that there is no ‘secret recipe’ on what makes a successful open source community. It’s all a question of not just the license type and governance model, but the overall mix of attributes forming the open source business model, including how the bridge between commercial and community developers is structured and the relevance of the component to ‘scratching a popular ‘itch’.

For clarification, the next table lists that main licenses used in open source projects, their background, their popularity, and IPR category. The table also shows how each license treats modifications and derivatives, and whether indemnities, warranties and patent grants are explicitly provided. The table is again sourced from VisionMobile’s 360 degree workshop on mobile open source.


Thanks to Bill Weinberg, Hal Steger and Quim Gil for their constructive feedback and help in putting together the community map.

Comments welcome as always.

– Andreas

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