I was crying into a beer the other day with a friend, lamenting the state of open software on portable devices, and I thought I’d make a list.
iPhone OS: Very good, very portable. Closed source, semi-closed ecosystem, hardware-locked. Can be hacked to some semblance of openness via jailbreaking, but this is a running battle.
Windows Mobile: Closed, not very good. Marginal ecosystem. Lots of apps out there for it now, because there wasn’t anything else you could develop for in that space until recently, but there’s not a lot of love out there for it now. In the future it’s supposed to be awesome, but in the future everything is supposed to be awesome. Right now, not so much. But there’s a large install base, and you don’t need to get your app approved by some arcane, opaque process to ship something that people can install and run.
PalmOS: See “Windows Mobile”, except without any prospect of a future. Possibly like Palm itself, if the Pre isn’t a monster success.
Palm’s WebOS: The Linux-based successor to PalmOS. Looks awesome, reportedly based on open standards (whatever that means), hasn’t shipped yet.
Blackberry OS: Closed, crappy. Does email less-badly than everything else in that space, is bad at everything else. They have an app store now, because everyone needs to have an app store, but what everyone really wants as far as I can tell is a much better mail client for the iPhone.
OpenMoko: Open, nominally portable but with power management so bad that it might as well not be. Also ugly, awkward, two years late and effectively over. They re-skinned the interface at least three times, but never managed to get power management or calling right; totally open, completely unusable, classic open source.
Maemo: Open source, open platform and actually pretty good. Ships on minitablets (but not telephones) that only Nokia makes and that Nokia doesn’t make anymore of, I am just now finding out. I’m not sure how many new Maemo devices Nokia actually ships now, but from the deep discounts I’m seeing on N810s, I believe the answer is “none”. Something might come out late this summer, and hopefully Nokia will have come to its senses regarding its crappy MicroB browser and gotten behind Fennec by then but in the meantime very much like WebOS: the mockups and demos are awesome, but the product isn’t actually shipping yet.
Android: Ostensibly open-source, but not in any way that actually matters; the OS is cryptographically locked down by the phone carriers providing it. You can’t actually change anything on the OS; or write code for it in anything but Google’s Java API. It’s nominally open-source, but with the basic problem of closed-source baked right into it – you can’t make the changes you want to something you presumably own.
S60: Becoming open, but slowly, so slowly. Runs on an awful lot of the phones in the world, though, so we’ll see how that shakes out, but its got the smell of PalmOS on it – does incredible work on the smaller, lighter-weight platforms that the world is steadily moving away from, coasting towards irrelevance by standing relatively still. But some of the better cellphones in the world still run it, and it looks like it might still have some legs, so it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen here.
The thing that really hurts me about this is that there’s no obvious correlation between open-source software and an actual open platform, much less an open ecosystem. Some open-source products ship on only closed-off devices, and some of the closed-source devices have the most open ecosystems around, if not a scrap of open code. Worse, some open-source devices are actually more closed-off than some of their closed-source competitors.
I would have thought those things would be related, but I guess not.