The Next Paradigm Shift: Open Source Everything

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In the past year, open source software and development models have come to the forefront of mobile computing. Whether its Google’s Android, the Asus Eee PC with its Linux underpinnings and UI, or even the comparison of the more open development models of Maemo and Nokia’s Internet Tablets with that of Apple’s iPhone OSX implementation. The shift isn’t just a move to mobile devices, but a move to a different way of doing business with computing. And this one is more profound than just simply cloud computing or moof-ing.

First: Rushing to Open Source Development Models

The most apparent happening over the past year has been the rush by carriers, mobile device makers, and software developers towards open source platforms for development. On the mobile side we have seen the LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation, Google’s Android, Access, Symbian, Qtopia, and several others demonstrate and drum up support for mobile operating systems and development that are based on the open-community model called open source development.

These models leverage the community development angle that has characterized development for a long time; but add the needed component of vision and capital so that open source projects are able to sustain some kind of vitality when they are out of the developer’s hands. 

Being such a new type of development model, very few companies are (loudly) public as to how they are leveraging open source development models. Google, Nokia, Sun, and Access have been noticeable in this space, and more companies will make themselves known as development tools and processes shapen up.

Second: Open Source Operating Systems and Development Communities

The large companies funding development are one thing, but what gives open source anything its legs is the development and user communities that sit in the forefront of action. Whether a hobbyist developer, or an association such as the Mozilla Foundation, these communities utilize a many hands-many voices approach to solving issues within software.

Normally, these communities will see several editions of software (alphas, betas, and release candidates) before it is ready for wholesale distribution. The communities have layers of participation (developers, evangelists, user experience professionals, etc.) which all have some vested interest in seeing the product succeed. And in some cases, the community is able to galvanize an effort that changes an entire industry (such as what Firefox has been able to do for web browser development).

Its strength is also a weakness however. The many hands-many voices nature of open source development can lead to misguided product direction, forever broken software, and even the creation of forked software which is no longer compatible with the original.

Some communities have managed to minimize the impact of these issues by garnering corporate sponsorship of some kind, or creating associations where there is defined leadership. Though, not all efforts have gotten to this point. Open source software is just as much an emotional investment as it is a code-based one, and many upon seeing those layers of needed adminstration will lose heart in developing or evangelizing products, though continue to use it.

Third: Open Source Benefits to Come for End-Users

For end-users, open source on mobile devices is something that is still a few years off from being relevant enough to shout about. Even still, there are some aspects of open source development that when they do hit mobile devices, can and should be a source of great empowerment:

  • Open Source mobile devices will offer greater means of personalizing intricate areas of the software for those capable enough to learn and code
  • The costs for mobile devices will go down due to fewer licenses for things such as operating systems and software support
  • Open source software can take advantage of being highly localized, offering local developers a chance to put their abilities and applications before an audience that never knew of them before

Finally: An Open Ecosystem

What all of this means is that the control of innovation and products moves to the users and developers from large companies. Companies then morph into being more like enablers and guardians of uniformity and process. 

As it stands now, open source development can only influence service offerings and application development. In time, things learned from working with open source communities will enable manufacturers to bring products to market faster – through open relationships with hardware suppliers for some components. Hardware and software vendors will push even more towards security and standards interplay between different systems and devices. And those companies that stay closed source will have a vocal and fast moving competitor, creating the push needed for them to stay innovative in these changing times.

This can end up working out for everyone in time. However, changing paradigms usually means that someone bears the brunt of the pain. As we move forward with more open source opportunities becoming mainstream, these wrinkles will show, and the mobile industry will grow and adapt.

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