Good, Open, Portable; Pick Any Two.

Please Hold Something

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.

8 Comments

  1. Posted April 27, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    You’re being a bit unfair to Android. If you buy a non-carrier-subsidized “Dev Phone”, you can treat it like real open source and put on your own custom builds.

    But because this applies to such a small number of the devices out there, it’s hard to see how a genuine open source ecosystem is going to build up around it. Still, you never know; maybe the people who buy the unlocked phone are exactly the sort of people who are likely to write lots of code.

    Android’s problem is really the same one that affects all makers of carrier-subsidized phones (except Apple for the reason that ATAT was desperate when Apple was strong), that they can only do what the carrier allows them, not what they might want.

    My hope for the long-term is that convergence on LTE as a standard will make it more feasible to sell carrier-unlocked phones, and there’ll be more open hardware out there than we’ve historically seen.

  2. Posted April 27, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Android might be evil, but Archos is worse.

    There might not be many options available now for Android handsets without the cryptocancer, but there’s nothing preventing that in the future.

    I also think we’re going to see Cisco enter this space in the next year, and they might be crazy enough to build their handset OS on BSD.

    There’s some other hitters coming in to the game as well — we know that Dell wants in pretty bad, and I’m sure that IBM, Lenovo, Asus, Sun/Oracle, and maybe even Intel also want in on the game.

    I think the big Android win is going to be the Chinese manufacturers. Once Android really takes over China, it’ll start to take over the rest of the landscape rather organically — and the only question is whether Symbian can open itself fast enough to compete.

  3. Mike Hoye
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I’m being unfair to android at all. They have used open source software to do precisely what the ideology that made that software possible is explicitly designed to avoid – that users not be able to control the devices they ostensibly own.

  4. Posted April 28, 2009 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    If it weren’t for the existence of that Dev Phone, I would (and did) agree with you, but given that the Android people explicitly offer an unlocked “you own it for reals” phone without any fighting/jailbreaking, I think they’re clear of badness.

    Now, yes, the T-Mobile version of that phone is bullshit “shmopen shmource,” and most people won’t want to give up the $200 T-Mobile subsidy for genuine openness, and that creates real problems for the ecosystem, but I don’t think Android could do anything about this; if T-Mobile is subsidizing the phone, they’re going to have approval rights on it, and it’s pretty clear that “genuinely open source” is one of their non-desiderata.

  5. Ian Hurst
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    AOL at Mike Kozlowski – what more should Google do here? They release an open platform and an open phone. Would refusing vendors the right to sell a closed version at a subsidized price accomplish anything other than relegating Android to total obscurity? Cause, man, I’d love Google to stick it to the man here (by which I mean North America – dunno how it works elsewhere), but I’m not seeing how they could do it outside becoming their own carrier. I satisfied my own “fuck the man!” urges by rooting a G1 a couple of months ago, but that doesn’t amount to much at all.

  6. Posted April 28, 2009 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Nokia doesn’t make anymore of, I am just now finding out

    Arrgh. I was eyeing a N810 as a PDA replacement when my TX died.

    Oh well. There’s always something else.

  7. Posted April 28, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    rooting a G1

    God, I hope that’s not Australian slang.

  8. Ian Hurst
    Posted April 28, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    Eauuugh! What an unfortunate sentence!