Post-Open Source, Why Web and Mobile aren’t

I was just reading the interesting article by Glyn Moody about how Mobile apps and the Web are reducing the opportunity for Free and Open Source to take off, right at the time when it should have the biggest basis for doing so.

What’s interesting is that this is another stage in the tragic commons merry-go-round; where publicly minded, forward thinking people set about creating a new ecosystem where ideas can be shared. So impressively more efficient and free to all is the commons that some people come in who use the now free ecosystem to build upon it, by extension the next generation of proprietary garbage that has to be fought away by the next generation of publicly minded people.

We’ve seen it once before when the computer world, which became an open platform, suddenly developed a whole host of parasitic monopoly companies that based their entire closed platforms on top of the older system. And that wasn’t the first time this happened either.

So now we have open source taking the world by storm. Except of course that it’s now undergoing an interesting shift, instead of the cultural shift from passive consumers to active participants; we instead see a new layer of companies who take advantage of the free ecosystem provided to build a new propritary, closed and wholly controlled market for themselves.

Both the Web and Mobile ecosystems are built on open source. Mobile may have a couple of old world encrusted barnacles, but almost all of these platforms are only possible thanks to the ecosystems they’re built upon. Of course they’re also not interested in being a part of creating a new free ecosystem, just a new proprietary one.

Perhaps this is the way it goes, perhaps in 10 years time we’ll be digging ourselves out of this mess to be told that some company is investing a new proprietary system based on open source mobile and open source server code.

Your thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Post-Open Source, Why Web and Mobile aren’t

  1. I don’t know why open, free software folks care about what commercial companies do with software that is available to do with it as one pleases. So what if they make proprietary software out of it? True free, open source folks have never really counted on nor relied on commercial help, and they have thrived in their circumstance. They make alternatives to commercial, proprietary software, and they always will. Why keep bringing the issue up?

  2. What is old is new again. Quallity and uncompromising functionality are keys that people seek, paid or unpaid.

    Maybe the app phenomena on the iOS (closed source OS) and Android (open source OS) devices are just optimizing for a local maximum along the current hardware performance curve. Maybe as apps become more commoditized (like operating systems) open source app quality will beat out proprietary solutions. Some kind of curve akin to Moore’s law continues to push forward price, performance & power consumption for average users but it seems paid R&D produces more innovation that sees it’s way into consumer hands. Canonical’s support of Unity echos this pattern in a way.

    The app stores by Google and Apple have similar policies. It remains to be seen how Amazon’s entry into the app store arena or web app stores like or or even the Software Center in Ubuntu will fare. I think user ratings have a great chance to be able to bring quality apps to the attention of less studious users even better than one sourced QA gatekeepers do now but I don’t think this has been very well proven yet.

    One thing that is hard to make up for is first mover advantage especially combined with products that provide good quality.

    In my own recent testing of a two year old iPhone 3G I feel iOS gives a much better experience compared to my two year old Android G1 using approximately the same hardware specifications. I think this is somewhat understandable given that iOS had a running start with collective knowledge gathered during iPod sales that has carried forward into iOS. One major feature missing from Android IMHO is a full backup solution. Some consumers don’t care as much as much data is synced to an Internet service but I think this matters. I hate to give iTunes undue credit but it’s protected environment has some advantages in making things appear safe and easy. A really simple and effective backup solution is an example of this though in the case of iTunes I think the costs and limitations it brings can be tough to swallow.

    On tablets, the new iPad 2 is an incredibly good user experience and the price is (at least) competitive with new Android 3.0 Honeycomb offerings just now being released in quantity. Sadly education markets do not seem to even be considering other offerings yet as truly comparable offerings have been missing for quite some time.

    In the marketplace Android just feels a step behind in many areas. This seems true even when it’s ahead of the game. Almost nobody now is talking about the Viewsonic gTablet which has as good or better hardware specs than many of the offerings announced at Comdex yet it was available way back in Nov 2010 at multiple US retail outlets. Yet they shipped early at the expense of shipping with older software. Why they haven’t released a Honeycomb Android 3.0 update I don’t know.

    In Android’s favor, one key metric is tremendously significant right now: there are more Android smart phones sold every month than iOS devices. This may be a tipping point and indicator of things to come but as Glyn Moody mentions, most apps available for it are not open source even if the platform it runs on is open source. The Apple lead has dwindled for smart phones. Time will tell for other markets.

    I’m hopeful to see some wonderful tablets running Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity become widely available soon like the unit I saw at a recent user group in San Francisco. Running Android on a tablet like the B&N color Nook is getting close to having something available for the masses at a reasonable $250 cost. I even heard about Ubuntu running on one but haven’t seen it yet. These certainly are interesting times for computing solutions.

  3. If what you want is to further open source in the mobile world then please consider supporting IcedRobot (consisting of GNUDroid, GNUBishop and OpenJDK.) The goal is to produce a fully open source alternative to Google’s Android sans the current concerns regarding Linux headers and patent/copyright disputes with Oracle. N.B. let’s hope that some businessman doesn’t come along and try to drop mention of the GNU name from a distribution of the project or take a 75% slice of revenue from a plugin or develop in such a way as to cause a schism between his company and the project.

  4. @phase1geo – Perhaps because what FOSS folks would like is commercial open source and not proprietary anything. I think you confuse commercial with proprietary; they’re not related; there are plenty of freeware proprietary and commercial open source as evidence of that.

  5. in the paradigma of a SVN organisation of a project it seems that today web platform API is used as a new branch where community developers contribute mfreely and this social work get eventually merged into the commercial trunk. Web API were originally intended so different domains could progammatically talk to each other but it turned out to be free testing and debugging from developers using the API. Both beneficiate of course. In the case of Google i beneficiate from the trunk they have made publicly available and Go2 beneficiates from my feedbacks. The ELGG framework is made available to developers but there is a paid version that surely beneficiates from the debuging done by the community in the OSS version.

  6. doctormo,

    Can you point me to an MBA educational program that does a good job of teaching MBA candidates about the market dynamics and best practises which sustain the FOSS ecosystem?

    If we are training business people to in sustainable farming techniques, should we expect them to do anything other than what we see them doing?

    It’s really no different than watching highly industrialized coffee growers stripping out forest to plant a maximum amount of coffee crop, instead of using more sustainable techniques which conserve forest and provide a sustainable ecoystem long term. The analogy breaks down when you look close at the driving economic factors, but the effect on the ecosystem in the analogy holds up.

    If we aren’t teaching business “leaders” about sustainability in the digital commons..then we can’t really expect them to think about it.


  7. Tim O’Reilly did a really interesting interview on FLOSS Weekly a few years back where he talked about the idea that we are entering a 3rd age of computers. The first ended when personal commuters became commoditized, the second ended when software became a commodity, and now in the 3rd age what matters is data. Twitter and Facebook and Google and their kin are all powerful tech companies because they have massive databases of data. What matters therefore is not whether the source code to Facebook is open for someone to modify, but whether the data is. This is why the recent Twitter news of them clamping down on 3rd party developers is so worrying. I think everyone had hoped that one day Twitter would make their API even more open so it could become the default backend for all kinds of technologies, but actually they have gone the opposite.

  8. Fundamentally, open source is about being able to control what is going on on your own computer. Know what the source code is doing, and have the ability to create, modify, improve and trust your own computer. Open source is less about who you trust your data to. Facebook, twitter, google, etc’s greatest asset is not their actual system, but the troves of data they have ascertained or been given to maintain. A movement for data ownership exclusively by the users would be distinct from the open source movement, imho.

  9. Open-Source licensing is something that rules the redistribution of software. My opinion is that most of these new Web and Mobile apps are not about redistribution of OSS but actually use of OSS.

    We may regret that the huge profit made by some of these companies doesn’t end up into a form of retribution of the original OSS developers.

    There is nothing new for me here. It just illustrates what OSS is.

    I agree that it might not always be a sustainable way of producing and supporting software.

    The problem is that those companies do not always contribute back to the OSS community and that’s an unfair situation.

  10. Robin: The redistribution of software is for use, ultimately, that’s the point. The point of the services is so that access can be provided to anyone, everyone, regardless and even then have the ability to start their own if required.

    Distributionism 101, the greatest control in the greatest number of hands.

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