back to article Where are all the open-source mobile projects?

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 …


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  1. John Latham

    "Open source used to be about copycatting popular proprietary products"

    I stopped reading at that point.

    1. Lars Silver badge

      Re: "Open source used to be about copycatting popular proprietary products"

      Yes, that sounds a bit harsh perhaps, but if you remember the time when there was no software for linux, for instance, then certainly Open Office, MySQL and so forth are copying proprietary software, without copying the source code, of course. Linux is a Unix "copy" without copying more than the industry standard.

      The old mantra is that open source will eventually build better implementations of proprietary software, that is, if there are important proprietary software then eventually some group of people will produce an open source version. And that is fine and happens all the time.

      As for "open-source mobile projects" there are several, but to produce a mobile you need the hardware, a company willing to produce it. Open source software you download on the internet onto your more or less proprietary hardware. That is where we stand to day. Still there are a lot of mobiles running linux if you check at, but android is the first to succeed big (due to Google).

      Without this rather funny middleman non of the companies now producing android mobiles would have done it alone successfully, I think.

      Many tried and many will, like Jolla perhaps, but how open will it become. Some of it will most likely be in user space and held proprietary. And why not.

      1. JEDIDIAH

        Re: "Open source used to be about copycatting popular proprietary products"

        > then certainly Open Office, MySQL and so forth are copying proprietary software

        ANY office suite is "copying proprietary software", big brand names in included. It's pretty old and basic stuff that Microsoft has no monopoly in. It's this mindless sort of brand fixated mentality that make running the monopoly platform far less useful. Some of us might want to use an "alternative". Licenses aren't even the big issue there.

        ...and SQL? That's an open standard. Whining about MySQL is like trying to call ANY image editor a Photoshop knockoff.

        Both are good examples of stuff that's OLD enough that it should be commodity and dirt cheap by now.

        There's no good reason for either class of software to be the exclusive domain of some monopoly vendor that has mastered the art of forcing everyone to buy pointless upgrades.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Open source used to be about copycatting popular proprietary products"

      I stopped at "In today's emerging markets of Big Data and cloud computing, however, open source drives innovation while proprietary products play catch-up."

      Pretty sure both of the tech that line mentioned are attempts at implementation of the tech that companies like IBM and Google (and god knows who else) have had for years before they made it public. I'm also pretty sure that those same companies have since advanced a lot while the general public is still trying to perfect their own version.

  2. Ru

    One issue for low-level projects in mobile land is the vast amount of relatively young proprietary hardware. Take a look at the phone models you can install Cyanogen upon; its a fairly small subset of available Android phones, because porting to a new phone is likely to be a painful and complex process. The GPL is no help here; I have a custom ROM on my Dell Streak 5, but it is unlikely to ever run anything more modern than Android 2.3, because of the lousy hardware support by Dell.

    1. mathew42

      Device drivers have and always will be the problem until the hardware manufacturers provide support. Once you have a binary blob anywhere in the chain it becomes significantly more challenging to upgrade. Graphics cards and wireless cards are the primary example of this.

      Linux has been supported by hardware providers writing device drivers because the server market is large enough that it makes financial sense. For a mobile phone manufacturer there is little incentive in open sourcing the binary blobs because they want to sell more hardware.

      I suspect it might be the Chinese manufacturers who move first on this, because they can avoid royalty payments and gain support from a wider community.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OpenSource - more than copycat :-|

    Open Source software has been around for years - probably more years than the author of this piece has been in the IT industry. Sure, a lot of coders think they can write alternatives (and better versions) to the big software giants systems - but many of todays systems are built from OpenSource tools that innovate and define the specification - be that GCC to compile code or Apache to serve web pages. PostgresSQL (or MySQL if you must) to store data and drive e-Commerce - all of which have done far more to make what the web is today than it would be if it were all created and served up by proprietary software.

    and lets not confuse Open Source (where the source code is available and can be examined) with Free Software - which costs nothing and can be used as you want.

    however, the author probably needs to get familiar with the history of e.g. Linux on the SmartPhone/tablet platform - its not just Android - check out Tizen -

    this link : shows its parentage....and I think it should be taken seriously as Samsung have got a Tizen version of their Galaxy S3 - as seen by WiFi Alliance (google TIZEN samsung galaxy s3 so find the sites carrying that news)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: OpenSource - more than copycat :-|

      Your definition of Free Software is confusing. Are you talking about Free and Open source Software (RMS style) where nothing is mentioned about the cost, or Freeware which costs nothing and you can use as you want but the distributor has no obligation towards you ? As for Samsung Galaxy S3 running Tizen, for the moment it's just news as you're saying. Oh, by the way, Its license is carefully chosen to allow locking it down at will. Holding your breath for it might be dangerous at this point.

      1. Anonymous Dutch Coward

        Re: OpenSource - more than copycat :-|

        Oh yes, let's start talking about the various subdefininitions of free and/or open, libre, gratis etc....

        I think most people know that an open source license does not necessarily 0 bucks for the product. And the people that don't... are perhaps beyond saving.

        Rather pay attention to trimming that beard...

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: OpenSource - more than copycat :-|

      Open Source software has been around for years ... Open Source (where the source code is available and can be examined)

      By that definition, "Open Source software" (and it hardly deserves the capitals, since you're clearly talking about something generic) has been around as long as ... software. Closed-source proprietary software came later in the history of commercial computing.

      In other words, using that definition, there's little point in making general claims about "open source", because you're describing the larger part of all software.

      That said, Matt's generalization about "copycat" projects is not particularly interesting either (and neither is the one about "innovation" in certain areas). Certainly it's worth acknowledging that many of the open-source software projects (of whatever variety) that were launched after closed-source commercial software was well-established were attempts to provide alternatives to existing commercial products. Others weren't, though, so it's hard to support claims about trends, at least without providing some hard data.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Easy answer, Mr. Asay!

    The founder of Umbraco was very close to the actual truth. While they mention the platform as the cause for this situation you're countering the example of Windows and MacOS. However if you look at Windows8 on ARM and secure boot, the truth will stand naked in front of our eyes : it's the closed (I'd say locked up to the eyelids) hardware. There can be no open software on a hardware that is so severely closed. What good is to try to develop or port open source software software if you have to pass through the hoops of an app store ? How many developers have access to mobile phone hardware in a way that would allow them to show their creativity ? Do you know of any tablet or phone device manufacturer that will offer their hardware freely (not at zero cost) to open source developers ?

    In my opinion, mobile device manufacturers will not repeat the mistake made by PC manufacturers to allow free access to their hardware so open source will never be a revolution in this domain. It's not that open source is a misfit on mobiles, it's because it being denied full access to them.

    1. Roland6 Silver badge

      Re: Easy answer, Mr. Asay!

      >mobile device manufacturers will not repeat the mistake made by PC manufacturers to allow free access to their hardware

      Agree, I'm not aware of any mobile device manufacture who has published the relevant interface specifications for their devices.

      Whilst I also agree with your reasoning, it is in my opinion a missed opportunity. Yes IBM made a mistake with the PC, it did lay the foundations for the modern PC industry. Hence the question is whether there is room and opportunity for a PC-style open device platform (smartphone, tablet etc.).

      I look at the various smartphones and see a very capable processing platform that could have many applications but is limited to being just a smartphone that will, after a few years, effectively become landfill, when it could be re-used and have a second life. On one of my projects I've had to give up the idea of re-using an (android) smartphone and instead am looking at less integrated devices such as the Rasberry Pi which provide an open platform but don't have the user-friendly integration of the smartphone platform.

    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: Easy answer, Mr. Asay!

      The founder of Umbraco was very close to the actual truth. While they mention the platform as the cause for this situation you're countering the example of Windows and MacOS. However if you look at Windows8 on ARM and secure boot, the truth will stand naked in front of our eyes : it's the closed (I'd say locked up to the eyelids) hardware. There can be no open software on a hardware that is so severely closed.

      By what stretch of the imagination is the situation with a closed hardware platform like Win8 RT "very close" to Hartvig's claim that "OSS only thrive in open ecosystems"? Leaving aside for the moment the fact that "open ecosystems" is so vague and banal as to be largely meaningless, it's hard to believe that a significant number of FLOSS enthusiasts would describe non-RT Windows as one. So Matt's point about Windows (and OS X) on this matter looks pretty secure. (On the other hand, I can't see why he described Hartvig's statement as a "good point", since as he goes on to argue, it's inaccurate, if it means anything at all.)

      Nor is there any great barrier to porting a great deal of open-source software to some mobile platforms. Sure, some are more or less locked down; but that's not what Hartvig is claiming. He's saying that OSS will only "thrive" (another term too general to have much meaning) in an open "ecosystem". That's a philosophical claim, and one that elides the tremendous variety of open/free software policies, and the resulting combinatorial explosion of "openness" in any non-trivial system composed of such software.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    GPL doesn't help

    A lot of open source is still encumbered with GPL licensing, although theres still plenty of useful stuff in BSD, MIT, Apache. GPL and app development on mobile don't really go together IMO.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: GPL doesn't help

      On closed, locked-down hardware that is. Otherwise how can you explain the wide adoption of Linux compared to *BSD ?

    2. mathew42

      Re: GPL doesn't help

      GPL only encumbers those who want to develop a closed-source proprietary application.

      I don't particularly like the idea of releasing code, and for example having someone add a pretty interface and then selling it without contributing that work back to the community.

      Can you expand on what is so special about mobile app development that the GPL doesn't work?

  6. Christian Berger

    Closed bootloaders - fragmented hardware

    For PCs you need one single image, which runs on 99% of all PCs. On mobile devices every device is a completely new platform. Worse you have no way to enumerate your hardware.

    So even if you get your kernel to run, it has no way to mount the root filesystem. Even if it somehow manages to do that, it has no idea how to access the graphics hardware or what display is connected to it.

    On the PC this is different. You put your bootloader into the first sector on disk. It will be loaded into RAM and executed, you have a BIOS which fulfills you every disk and display related wish. You can already talk to the user. Every USB controller is the same, so you can access the USB. If you want to know what other hardware is there is the the PCI you can ask.

    So why does that matter? Open source projects can only work if they have a certain level of efficiency. There is a certain maximum amount of work you can put into it for what you get out. That's also why most open source operating systems are unixoid. Unix is simply one of the most efficient systems. On no other system you can do so much with so little code.

    And that's the problem, the mobile world currently takes far to much effort just to get your code running. Once there is standard hardware, we will see the same progress like on PCs.

    1. Lars Silver badge

      Re: Closed bootloaders - fragmented hardware

      Nice text, but I think we all have forgotten how much power those ISPs have, I do not think they will ever accept or support a completely open mobile. But it would be nice if somebody produced hardware on to with you could download the OS of your choice.

      1. Christian Berger

        Re: Closed bootloaders - fragmented hardware

        Actually mobile operators, at least in Europe, are fairly open to people using any device they want, as long as it doesn't cause any kind of damage or disruption. So you get your SIM, refuse to get hardware from the operator and there you go. There are, as far as I know, already some mobile phones with leaked firmware which can do things its not supposed to do. Again I have not yet heard of any pressure from the operators.

        If there's anything, there's more pressure from the hackers towards the operators so they'll finally fix their networks.

        The hardware problem might slowly solve itself. Just look at the Raspberry PI. Put that into a proper case and you'll have a proper little device.


      Re: Closed bootloaders - fragmented hardware

      What you just describe would be a showstopper for ANY platform.

      Since this is clearly not a problem for Android, it clearly isn't a problem for Linux either.

      Something else must be the roadblock. Free Software projects can use the same APIs as commercial vendors do. This is not unlike how Free Software works on MacOS or Windows.

      The OS is there to take care of the nitty gritty hardware details and leave a nice programming interface for the coders.

      As far as PhoneOS goes, Free Software is simply BANNED. It's hard to get past that.

      1. Christian Berger

        Re: Closed bootloaders - fragmented hardware

        Actually it is a problem for Android. That's why only a small part of the mobile phones can be updated to the current version of Android. All the development needs to go through the hardware companies. They adapt Android so it'll run on their devices. Once they have no interest in maintaining support for a particular device, they'll simply drop it. That's one of the biggest problems with Android.

        One also must differentiate between 2 markets where mobile phones are being sold to. One, and unfortunately the biggest, are network operators. Those people mostly care about one thing, control. They buy the hardware and "rent" it to the customers, or at least that's how they see it. They want to make sure they are not loosing any business. They want to make sure you cannot run VoIP software on it, or instant messaging. I mean they pay for the hardware, so they decide, seems fair, doesn't it?

        The other market, which is still to small, is people simply buying a mobile phone independently of their operator. Thanks to the idea of a SIM-card this is easy enough for even non-technical users. Operators usually don't mind, after all they are not paying for it and trying to enforce only certain devices on their networks means a huge headache for them. In those devices the customer decides, that's why they always had VoIP or Internet radio or instant messaging. One of the early examples is the Nokia N770. Nokia even left out the GSM-Module so the sales-people wouldn't even try to sell it to the operators.

  7. Ramazan

    Re: Is there something inherent in mobile that is a poor fit for open source

    Matt, are you crasy or what? All GSM/EDGE/UMTS/HSxPA codecs are proprietary and _patented_. That's why it's impossible to do Free as in Free Speech implementaions ATM. Full stop.

    1. Ramazan
      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        @Ramazan - Good luck!

        convincing carriers to interconnect with you.

    2. Anonymous Dutch Coward

      @Ramazan Re: Is there something inherent in mobile that is a poor fit for open source

      There's a difference between programming applications on/for a phone and reimplementing your own codec.

      Similarly, not everybody programming for Linux is writing his own graphics driver.

      Or am I missing something blindingly obvious here?

  8. Lennart Sorensen

    I for one despise Android.

    I hate Android. It ruined what was finally becoming an interesting cell phone market with openMoko and similar projects in the works. Fully open cell phones. Now they are all gone, because google came along claiming to be an open source phone system, while being no such thing.

    Also I don't want anything to do with java, which seems to be about the only way to do applications on Android. iphone is much better there, but the locked down policies of Apple ruin that one.

    No wonder I am sticking with a plain old feature phone for now. If I can't add applications to it myself, then I don't need a smart phone at all.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Christian Berger

      Re: I for one despise Android.

      Well Cyanogenmod and some open "market" like fdroid are actually quite close to something tolerable.

      However once the Raspberry PI gets a display, and a small "clamshell" case so it'll look like a little palmtop, we'll finally have proper hardware.

      Maybe eventually we'll be able to get our own open source SoC designed.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One point

    If you wanted to release your open source iOS apps on the app store, you'd need to pay for an annual developer license. Not a huge amount of money, but an upfront cost to give stuff away for free can stick in the craw.

    I use a few bits of open source software on both Android and iOS, and am always grateful for them. While it's hard to justify paying for some of the more simple/basic/obviously ripped off stuff out there, I can see why people might not always want to just give things away on such agressively monetised platforms.

    (Yeah, ok, Linux user, I probably didn't need to tell you that, you can probably see the muesli sandals from there :D)

  10. HildyJ Silver badge

    Your article focuses on big open source but remember that open source used to start small and programmers graduated to volunteering on larger projects.

    I remember Palm, which did not run an open source OS, but which had multitudes of programmers who would see their own need, create an app (before they were called that), and publish it to the Palm community. The MeeGo (pre-Tizen) community also saw that, albeit on a much more limited basis since the N800/N810 were never big sellers.

    Then, it was difficult to get anything but donations for your work. Now, it is too easy to monetize a program and, once you have monetized it, you don't want to publish the source code.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Easy development -> limited need to collaborate

    Mobile apps are analogous to WIndows shareware. They are generally small and simple enough (and the development tools sufficiently good) that an individual can create a compelling app without needing to call on the assistance of others. And we all know the open-source UI problem.

    And there is no compelling reason why app-writers should not profit from their work. The difference from open source projects (most of them are what I'd call infrastructure building blocks) is that a contributor profits from all the work their co-contributors put in. So there is a profit motive in each case.

    It's fine, I'm perfectly happy using paid-for or ad-supported apps on my phone, Windows on my laptop, and Linux on our servers.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Open Mobile Hardware

    If developpers can't get to know the hardware, there's a limit to what they can reasonably do with it (and any development time spent reverse-engineering undocumented hardware is time not spent on actually writing stuff).

    It's an obstacle that will probably be overcome in time (the nature of Open Source means that even when progress is slow, it can keep reviving and eventually surpasses Proprietary equivalents). I, for one, consider greater openness on mobile devices to be very important, given the amount of tracking/spying/prying and general violation of privacy that proprietary mobile OSs have been caught indulging in.

  13. PlanB

    It's there

    My experience is that there is a large amount of open source middleware for iOS and Android. And the ecosystem works, too, but in a different way: the BSD-like licenses allow developers to make money, which in turn allows them to contribute back.

  14. Fazal Majid

    Market distortion due to subsidies

    The mobile market is hugely distorted by handset subsidies, in the US at least. More than 2/3 the real price of an iPhone is fronted by the carrier, who then makes up for it handsomely during the lifetime of the contract. Since you cannot buy BYOD (bring your own device) contracts discounted to not include the subsidy, the only rational thing to do for consumers is to buy a subsidized phone every 2 years to recoup some of the excess monthly charges they are forced to pay by the cellco oligopoly.

    This gives the cellcos huge power over the selection of phones. Not absolute power, as the Apple vs. Verizon tug of war showed, but Apple has a rabidly loyal following and no other handset manufacturer has the same negotiating leverage with the cellcos. Palm was hamstrung by the fact neither AT&T or Verizon carried the WebOS devices. Nokia was effectively held at bay in the US because carriers distrusted Nokia Ovi's "over the top" App Store of sorts (cellcos have an inflated sense of entitlement and believe they should get all revenue on mobile, even though they bring zero innovation to the table).

    Cellcos have zero interest in truly open handsets, specially openness at the level of the baseband controller, the separate CPU and embedded OS by the likes of Qualcomm, Broadcom et al which controls the radio and the GSM/CDMA/3G/LTE/voice protocol stack. Some of this is due to legitimate concerns about network stability (it's shocking how brittle the signaling systems that run the networks' control plane are, relying mostly on security by obscurity), Mostly it's about protecting revenue, though: cellcos don't want you to use a fully integrated Skype or equivalent VoIP to bypass the outrageously expensive racket that are voice minutes and SMS. They also don't want you unfettered tethering. They want to shovel unremovable crapware on your home screen to pitch their own half-baked services like paid navigation.

    All of this explains why they have zero incentive to encourage truly open FOSS phones, and in fact strong incentives to oppose them.

    1. Paul 135

      Re: Market distortion due to subsidies

      Indeed, apart from any of my own biased jingoism which I must acknowledge, this is a further reason why the shift of mobile technology away from Europe and towards the USA as a concerning development.

      Unfortunately, I am also seeing the distorted views of the US tech media gradually influencing European tech media and European consumers in their distorted judgements and perceptions.

  15. rvt

    I was highly diappointed to see that from the playstore, hardly any of the software could be downloaded as source in GPL, BSD or any otheropej source license form. People kept talking to me that Android is open source and all that, but thats totally useless if you want to modify the software you are using, which is 99 ot of 100 propriety.

    So, I really dont understand why Android fans keep saying about the openess of Android, because everything is closed source, except the OS itself. Which is, again, pretty useless because you usually want to modify the software, not the OS.

  16. ScissorHands

    I have a Nokia N9

    About as Open Source as it can be, until (maybe) Tizen.

    And yet, did it stop journalists from preferring a closed dumbphone OS (WP7) to it? Did it ever.

  17. Paul 135

    DRM -- more worrying than closed source!

    To me I see a more pressing concern that many Android users seem to be blissfully unaware of than closed-source applications. That is DRM.

    Why is it that we had much successful lobbying in the music industry to get rid of DRM music files, but that DRM for mobile applications sold through Google Play goes by unnoticed? This DRM effectively changes Android from being an interoperable open-source platform, to a platform whereby users are being locked into Google unaware by proxy of Google Play.

    We urgently need more lobbying against DRM on Android. We need a strong DRM-free competitor to Google Play which also does not take the p1ss by skimming 30% off app sales towards giving a monopoly position to a large tax-dodging US multinational (app developers would be compensated for the lack of DRM by getting a greater share of the app payments). I understand that there are already efforts for a FOSS Market in the likes of f-droid, but I believe the DRM to be a bigger issue than closed source ever can be, and see nothing inherently wrong with paying for software that someone spent time developing.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: DRM -- more worrying than closed source!

      You don't like Google ? Then try Apple.

  18. Superfly_FR

    RIM/Blackberry is going open source

    Just have a look on github

    They are committed into this. Even their HTML5 Webworks framework (forked from phonegap) is open source.


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