Where are all the open-source mobile projects?

Beauty of Apple and Android not found on a server


Open ... and Shut Open source used to be about copycatting popular proprietary products. In today's emerging markets of Big Data and cloud computing, however, open source drives innovation while proprietary products play catch-up. It is surprising, then, that the industry's other major market, mobile, is a comparative wasteland for open source.

Oh, sure, Android appears to be on track to dominate tablets, just as it does the smartphone market. But Android is hardly a paragon of open-source virtue. In 2011, VisionMobile concluded that Android is one of the most closed open-source projects, at least when compared to other major open-source projects like Linux, Firefox and others. Google, not surprisingly, chafes at this characterisation, but its own engineering directors admit Android is "both open and closed depending on business needs at any given time."

Kind of like every other piece of software in existence.

None of which is intended to cast aspersions on Android, which is a great OS that keeps getting better. But Android's outsized presence in the mobile market shouldn't obscure the fact that there are precious few important open-source projects driving mobile in the same way that they do in Big Data and cloud computing.

Niels Hartvig, founder of the Umbraco open-source content management project, suggests the dearth of open source in mobile computing has a lot to do with the closed platforms, including Android, upon which developers must build:

It's a good point, but there's plenty of open-source software written for the Windows and Mac OS X platforms, neither of which is open in the way the server market has been. Is there something inherent in mobile that is a poor fit for open source?

Rod Goodger thinks so. He suggests that open source is better for back-end infrastructure, and much of the innovation in mobile is focused on the front-end/user experience, where open source has been less successful traditionally. This is a good point, though it must be said that most (all?) of the web application frameworks - from Ember.js to Meteor to Sencha - are open source. HTML5, despite some setbacks, has a bright future, and open source fuels that future.

It all comes back to developers, as end users don't really care about (or understand) open source. So long as the app is free or $0.99, they're not going to spend much time worrying about their freedom. Indeed, the low price point and immediacy of apps through the major app stores largely mitigates possible incursion from open-source apps, were users inclined to prefer them.

But maybe I'm overstating the issue. Appcelerator chief executive Jeff Haynie thinks so. As he told me:

I think that there are plenty of great examples of healthy open-source projects around mobile compared to Big Data: Google Android, [Appcelerator] Titanium, PhoneGap, Sencha, jQuery mobile, WebOS - just to name a few... The total lines of code that all these projects have is significant, and the combined contributors are quite large and active.

That's before you get into all the open source built around platforms like ours. We have thousands (literally) of smaller open-source projects built around the Appcelerator ecosystem alone - and each of the above I'm sure has plenty as well.

He makes a great point. Maybe the open source in mobile is buried in the technology that we know by other names: it's part of the mobile "stack", as it were.

And perhaps it's just a matter of time before open source takes center stage in mobile. Today mobile developers are just trying to get work done in a highly fragmented market. As the industry settles on norms for the kinds of services and infrastructure one needs to build successful mobile experiences, I suspect we'll see open source stake its claim to the market, similar to what happened in the server market 20 years ago.

Yes, open source is driving Big Data and cloud, but in many ways these markets are old: the Hadoop project didn't invent Big Data. It simply made it affordable, accessible. And while cloud is a (sort of) new delivery model, it is built on server, virtualisation, and other technologies that are reasonably well-understood. It's their application that is (somewhat) new, not the underlying technology itself.

Open source will have its day in mobile, but will probably improve upon a more mature market, rather than creating new markets. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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