Mobile Market Going Open Source?

At this year's GSMA Mobile World Congress, 3 ½ hours were devoted to the topic of "Mobilizing Open Source", which was no doubt spurred in part by the increasing attention Google's open-source mobile operating system, Android, has drawn. While open-source products have, for the most part, been pushed into a corner and untouched in the enterprise due to lack of support, regular updates, and compatibility, the mobile market is a unique bird. We already have a diversity of mobile operating systems--Windows Mobile, iPhone OS, BlackBerry OS, Palm OS and upcoming webOS, and Android, to name a few--, making for more competition, more innovation, and more opportunities for something different.

"At last year's GSMWC, the question was will we or won't we move to open source. This year, it's not a question of will we, but how we should go about doing it," said David Schlesinger, director of Open Source Technologies at ACCESS, creator of the NetFront web browser used in many mobile phones as well as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's PSP.

Why open source now?
Given that open source has never garnered a whole lot of attention in the past, why should it now? Open-source based technology offers something that our present-day mobile operating systems are all struggling to do: offer hardware manufacturers consistency. Granted, Windows Mobile offers a consistent platform to develop for, along with integration and consistency with Windows, the all-but-ubiquitous platform for desktops. But, Windows Mobile has failed to attract much attention lately, which might worry some hardware manufacturers about getting too invested in the platform.

Meanwhile, open source offers an interesting opportunity: if a compelling enough operating system enters the market, a hardware manufacturer can scoop it up with much less risk. Even if a proprietary solution is spun off of the open-source program, the changes will likely be small enough that it won't create any significant hassles on the development side, helping OEMs to be more agile and less married to a given OS.

Finally, there is of course the nicety of not having to license an operating system for each new device you create. Assuming there are no compelling reasons to side with a proprietary solution, open-source technology certainly offers a cost benefit.

Is Android a star?
So, who better to champion the new wave of open-source dominion than industry-darling Google? I'll admit, I've been fairly excited about Android's release myself, and have been awaiting the upcoming group of Android devices to see what impact they make on the market.

However, after talking with Schlesinger about Android, I'm starting to reconsider championing Android just yet. According to Schlesinger, Android is--among other flaws--buggy and difficult to work with. So, maybe it hasn't reached the ease and functionality it needs to make a big splash just yet.

"If I had to choose between a fad and the start of something big, I would probably say that Android is a fad," said Schlesinger. "I do think we'll see betters mainstream OSs being built from open source though."

The future of Windows Mobile
Is the future of Windows Mobile dire? Not necessarily. While Windows Mobile has rightfully been criticized for being slow to innovate in such a fast-moving market, the OS does still hold a pretty significant share of the mobile market. And, until there is a compelling OS that is easy for hardware manufacturers to adopt, Windows Mobile will continue to win the hearts of many manufacturers. And with Windows Mobile 6.5 coming up, I'm sure they're eager to see what's new.

But make no mistake: if Windows Mobile isn't able to innovate fast enough to keep up with leaders such as Apple and RIM, somebody will step in with an easy, limber OS that OEMs can depend on. Whether or not it's Android, my guess is that that OS will be based on open source, if not a completely open-source OS.

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