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Open barbarians poised to storm Apple's gate

Steve Jobs in denial?

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Open...and Shut Open source has a tendency to cannibalize and commoditize – and not just surrounding proprietary projects. As described by researcher Dirk Riehle, open source involves a process of continuous innovation and commoditization as communities form to wring inefficiencies from software markets. Interestingly, this same phenomenon happens all the time in the wider software world, and it forecasts diminished importance of closed platforms like Apple's iOS in favor of more open platforms like Android.

Riehle's research plays off the excellent analysis of The 451 Group's Matt Aslett on the rise of permissive licensing in open-source communities. As Aslett points out, GPL licensing has been in relative decline compared to Apache- and MIT-licensed projects.

The reason, as Riehle writes, is clear: "Projects that don't choose a permissive license are at a Darwinian disadvantage over those that do because the later can receive contributions from a broader set of enterprises than the former." Not so surprisingly, this holds true even for source code repositories: GitHub has been beating SourceForge, Google Code, and other source code repositories by being even more open.

Openness matters. Even in the land of open-source software, where openness is the default.

What this means, as Riehle further elaborates, is that even single-vendor open-source projects, which have open licensing but comparatively closed development processes, will give way to community-led projects over time. "Ultimately, all single-vendor innovation will be commoditized through a community-owned project." Not a good prognosis if you're in the business of selling support or "enterprise" versions of open-source software.

But this isn't just an open source phenomenon.

Google Android is a (somewhat) open, open-source project. It doesn't come with all the accoutrements of Apple's iOS success (a huge number of apps, fantastic developer tools, an uber-polished user experience, etc.), but it comes with something ultimately even more appealing to developers: deep API access and an open app-approval process among them.

And so it is kicking Apple's shins in the smartphone market, and almost certainly will do the same in tablets. Despite all its flaws. Because it's more open for developers.

Apple must recognize this. Or perhaps it's in denial. The company continues to build a beautiful end-to-end platform experience, intent on controlling every aspect of the user's experience. Sure, Apple has cracked open the door on some things, like finally welcoming back web apps as first-class citizens on the home screen in iOS 5, but its overall platform approach is hugely dismissive of the web. So much so, in fact, that O'Reilly's Alasdair Allan calls iCloud the "web-free cloud."

Cloud computing without the web? Only at Apple.

But, just like in open-source communities, while Apple's closed platform approach may win over developers in the short term, over the long haul openness wins. Every time.

Plenty of open barbarians are preparing to storm the gate. There's already Google knocking at the door with Android, but apparently also Facebook with Project Spartan , designed to use Apple's own Safari browser against it, by using it to seed Apple devices with sophisticated HTML5 apps. According to TechCrunch, Apple isn't worried by an HTML5 threat, considering the web app experience to be inferior to the iOS experience.

And according to Twitter and Microsoft, maybe it's right. But tell that to the Financial Times, Zynga, and other developers who are willing to bet on openness in the long run.

Just as all markets eventually do. ®

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 three times a week on The Register.

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