From messiah to pariah: The death of open source on mobile
$0.99 beats free almost every time
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.
It's an easy mistake for a novice to make. Matt Asay, with his experience at Ubuntu, doesn't have that excuse though. Free software (and to a lesser extent, 'open source') isn't just about being free of charge. Without wanting to state the obvious, Android devices have no problem with free, i.e. GPL software, whether through the Android Market or other sources. Unlike iPhone and WP7, it's not necessary for the user to jump through any hoops to do this.
Quality lower on GPL apps than closed source? Are you serious? First of all, can we finally dispel the myth that all GPL coding is done by amateurs. It's never been true on the desktop, as numerous studies have shown. In the case of these mobile devices, it's still very much the case that the ad-supported apps can generate very substantial profits for a commercial developer without having to be closed source. If it's really felt necessary to 'protect' the app from copying by others, it's possible to copyright the media content in the app, but still keep the code itself free. Secondly, the code quality of closed source Vs free software has been examined on several occasions and free, open development models have always been shown to have far fewer bugs. Thirdly, if a commercial developer wants to create a free, ad-supported app with copyright media content, they have every incentive to ensure the interface is of the highest quality. The business model of ad-supported relies on people being able to download without a second thought and to copy and redistribute freely. The faster an app spreads, the more ad hits it generates. Sure, it's a different model to selling an app for cash, but even very small sums like 99p are enough to casual downloads.
So, what about 'big name' apps? Is Matt Asay seriously suggesting that it's not possible to justify developing and offering a game like Angry Birds for free, using an ad-supported model?
It's now more or less taken as a given that Android will be the biggest volume player in the mobile space. Given the clamour for that particular app as the first really big mobile game, can you really imagine iPhone users being happy when a similarly popular app appears on Android for free and they either can't have it at all, or it costs them cash just because of Apple's policies? And even if they are happy, can you imagine the chilling effect on the iPhone platform as a whole if it's then seen by everyone who hasn't already settled into that camp for what it is - expensive and limited, just to support Apple's closed business model?
Now, about business use. It's often been said that the majority of business applications are custom built and that the vast majority of programmers work on in-house code. The reason FLOSS works so well for business is the ease of customising pre-built applications, and of letting others share the development effort. There are enormous business advantages of eschewing the 'one size fits all' approach of closed source vendors for applications which truly fit the needs of the individual business. In what way is a mobile platform for business not as capable of benefiting from open, custom app development as a desktop platform?
Given Matt Asay's experience, I'd have to conclude that this piece is no more than flamebait.
Is this about Free or Open Source?
This is a very confused story. What's wrong with an OSS 99c app? Why is that such a bad thing?
As Mrs Brown said...
...to Paddington Bear, "when you've got nothing to say, say nothing"