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From messiah to pariah: The death of open source on mobile

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Open...and Shut Open source has gone from pariah to messiah in the past decade, but it has yet to find a place at the mobile table, and risks being rendered obsolete.

Sure, it's not hard to find examples of open-source apps for iOS or Android, but the very premise of open source is under siege in the mobile world. Don't expect that to change any time soon.

Part of this comes from open-source licenses clashing with app store policies. It's perhaps not surprising that Microsoft isn't a big fan of GPL software within its Windows Phone Marketplace, but given its still-small market share, it may also not be a big deal. Of far more concern is the fact that Apple has started pulling GPL software from its virtual shelves.

This may not be that big of a deal. After all, open-source software developers long ago got used to skirting standard distribution channels, and will likely find workarounds like alternative app stores (Sourceforge App Store, anyone?) or may simply use the web to distribute HTML5 apps.

That's fine for developers, but it's less useful for consumers. They're finding apps in the various app stores, or they're hearing about them from friends, media and other sources. They're unlikely to jump through many hoops to get their apps, however, and this is perhaps the most pernicious effect mobile app stores will have on open source.

Bob Sutor, IBM vice president of open systems and Linux, hints at this in a recent tweet, when he asks: "Are 99 cent "cheap enough" apps a potential landmine for user adoption of FOSS in the mobile space?"

Matt Zimmerman, chief technology officer at Ubuntu Linux company Canonical, responds to Sutor's question, suggesting: "[T]he immediacy of both mobile app stores and the web has displaced a key non-tech driver for FLOSS (immediate gratification)."

In other words, if an app is close enough to free and immediately available, with the added benefit of potentially being higher quality than open-source alternatives (because of the paid investment in developing and polishing the app), will there be any reason to bother downloading an open-source app?

Freedom matters a great deal to some, but arguably not to the consumers flocking to Apple's devices. And perhaps not even to the bulk of developers writing for those consumers.

This isn't about Apple becoming the successor to Microsoft as The Great Satan. It's not even really about open app stores, important as they are. It's about mobile app stores making app discovery and adoption cheaper and easier than open source did.

Cheaper than free? Yes.

In the world of corporate purchasing departments, open source made a lot of sense to developers who just wanted to get work done, and so downloaded open source to get around bureaucracy. In the world of app stores, it may not make much sense at all. Not outside the infrastructure being used to build and deploy apps, anyway.

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso'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 twice a week on The Register.

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