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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Mapping open source into mobile: who, where and how

[Android, Symbian Foundation, Maemo, Trolltech… there’s been so much talk about open source moves in the mobile industry, but so little analysis on the big picture.  Andreas Constantinou distils market noise into market sense by mapping out three dimensions of open source in mobile: the who, the where and the how.]

Without a doubt, 2008 has been the year where open source has transitioned from a status of early adoption to one of acceptance and endorsement by the mobile industry’s who’s who as a recipe for collaborative software development.

The Android launch, the Symbian acquisition and open source roadmap, Intel’s Moblin 2.0 and OpenedHand acquisition, Nokia’s adoption of WebKit as a feature of the S40 platform, the Trolltech acquisition and incorporation of Qt on S60, Purple Labs acquisition of Openwave and Sagem assets, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform… it seems that in the space of just one year open source has transitioned all of a sudden from geekware for Linux enthusiasts to a succesful commercial alternative to closed-door standards.  Moving forward, 2009 will be the year of maturity for how open source can be used as a tool for cheaper, faster collaborative software development, which reduces barriers to entry and breeds innovation.

Yet rarely do analysts, bloggers or media cover the big picture of open source use in mobile; in other words who is using open source, where are they using it and under what terms (i.e. the license and governance terms). Here I ‘ll attempt to do just that; paint the big picture of mobile open source against three dimensions, the who, the where and the what

1. The Who’s Who Who is who in mobile open source? The following table provides a near-complete list of who’s who, from operating systems to development tools and industry initiatives. Naturally, the table excludes the 100s of smaller open source software projects that have been used in some capacity in one phone or other.

Table: who’s who in mobile open sourceLinux support packagesWind River (also one of the most prominent integrators for mobile Linux stacks), MontaVistaOperating systemsfor feature phones: Purple Labs; for smartphones: Azingo, Access Linux Platform, A la Mobile, OpenMoko; for MIDs: Intel Moblin, Ubuntu Mobile. Also OKL4 is virtualisation (hypervisor) software for mobile phones.MiddlewareGNOME’s GTK+ and related projects (e.g. D-Bus, Gstreamer), the graphics subsystem of Nokia’s Qt and the db4o database engine.Application environmentsGoogle’s Android, Nokia’s Maemo, Nokia’s Qt, Eclipse eRCP, Sun’s Java phone ME, Motorola’s Java MIDP3, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform and Nokia’s Web RuntimeBrowsersApple’s WebKit (on the verge of becoming a de facto standard for web-centric service delivery) and Firefox MobileService deliv. platformsFunambol (consumer email sync), Volantis (content adaptation)Development toolsEclipse Foundation (manages the Eclipse IDE, used as the basis for Nokia’s Carbide, Wind River tools and many others). Plus RhoMobile – a new set of open source developer tools for creating connected enterprise apps on smartphones.Industry initiativesSymbian Foundation (EPL license), Open Handset Alliance (APL2 license), LiMo Foundation (open source as it builds on top of Linux), GNOME Mobile and Embedded (LGPL-licensed GTK+ and related software)

There are also a couple of initiatives which are associated with ‘openness’ but are not related to open source; Microsoft Shared Source is a complex array of 10s of different licenses involving access to source code for Microsoft software, only two of which have been approved by the Open Source Initiative, the gatekeeper of open source license compliance; and the Adobe Open Screen Project which does not employ open source licensing at all.

2. The Where Where is open source software used in mobile phones ? The following table provides a 10,000 foot view of where open source licensed software is used within a mobile phone, from the kernel to applications. The rule of thumb is that the lower you go towards the base of the software stack, the more open source software you ‘re likely to find.

Table: where is open source used in mobile phone softwareKernel + base oper. systemIn a Linux-based OS, 90% of the kernel and base OS (drivers, base services) is community-sourced and unmodified, while 10% is community sourced and modified. The drivers for the modem stack are always closed source.MiddlewareWhere GTK+ is used (e.g. traditionally NEC and Panasonic phones), about 30% of the middleware stack is open source licensed based on the GNOME family of multimedia middleware (e.g. Gstreamer, D-Bus)Application environmentsThe percentage of open source software ranges from 100% in the case of Android and OpenMoko to 0% in the vast majority of feature phones where a proprietary Java ME engine is used.ApplicationsApplications are nearly 100% closed source, with the exception where WebKit is used as the browser.

Open source licensing is also used in server software; most notably in Funambol’s email synchronisation server and Volantis’ Mobility Server, a device identification and content adaptation framework. Network infrastructure vendors like Nokia Siemens sell Linux-based boxes and software, but that doesn’t really imply an open source product.

3. The How How is open source used in mobile? In other words, what are the licenses and the governance models employed in open source projects?

Several major mobile open source projects use a weak copyleft license (e.g. EPL, LGPL or MPL). Generally speaking, weak copyleft licenses carry some obligations for publishing source code modifications if distributed, but clauses around derivatives are less strict so can be used with proprietary software. The APL2 (non-copyleft) license is also popular – it is used in Google’s Android, Motorola’s planned MIDP3 release and AOL’s Open Mobile Platform.  Note how the GPL license, by far the most popular license in PC and Internet OSS projects is rarely used in mobile. This is one of the reasons for the zero adoption of Sun’s Java phone ME by handset OEMs and the same reason why Qt will have to be re-licensed under a more permissive license if Nokia wants to see it adopted by other handset OEMs.

Governance models vary widely; from Funambol’s moderator-based incorporation of contributions, to a single-company control over contributions, as is the case with Apple’s popular WebKit browser core. There’s lots more parameters to a governance model – particularly control over the release schedule, membership-only access, membership fees and IP ownership, but this a lengthy topic that deserves a separate discussion.

The next table summarises the license type and governance model (how contributions are managed) for popular mobile open source projects (see also earlier article on community dynamics).

Figure: comparing community governance models and licenses for popular OSS projects

Comparing licenses vs governance models

Here it’s worth shedding some light over a common misperception; an open source license does not imply a zero licensing cost.

For example many Linux-based OS vendors like Wind River, Azingo and Purple Labs are charging per-unit royalties for the software. As another example, the Symbian Foundation has vowed to release Symbian OS code under an EPL license, while members of the Foundation will have access to source code under a zero royalty license, for a flat membership fee of $1,500 per year. However the Symbian Foundation hasn’t publicised the fees members will have to pay for shipping handsets with the Symbian Foundation code; if the Foundation is to support is sub-500 staff (numbers according to Lee Williams), then the effective license fees should be in the region of millions of dollars per year per member.

Updated: OK Lab’s OKL4, a virtualisation (hypervisor) software engine is available under a dual license (commercial and a copyleft-like license similar to the one used by Sleepycat). OK Labs does not open contributions to the OKL4 engine, but instead supports a community of value-add software contributors that develop on top of the OKL4 engine.

Comments welcome as always. And thanks to LinuxDevices and the O’ Reilly Radar for covering this article.

– Andreas

[If you ‘d like to find out more about open source in mobile, check out our 360 degree workshop, a one-day deep-dive into everything and anything that is mobile open source, from economics and business models to license best practices, software management guidelines and 20+ case studies of real world lessons from open source use in the mobile industry.

You can also download our free research report on GPL2 vs GPLv3: The two seminal open source licenses,  their roots, consequences and repercussions.]

Update: We ‘ve been voted as the best blog in the Mobile Comms category by  Electronics Weekly Magazine!


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