Open source ushers mobile OS changes

The year is starting out with what may turn out to be significant changes in the mobile operating system market, with open source software playing a significant role just as it has in enterprise software, virtualization and cloud computing.

With fading heavyweights and interesting new challengers, there are changes afoot in the mobile OS market, but we must first acknowledge the market today is still mainly a duopoly of Apple with iOS and Samsung with Android.

However, if we look back five years, we see how dramatically the mobile OS landscape has changed. Given the pace of today’s device and application development and support, as well as users from consumers to the enterprise, we can expect similarly dramatic changes in the coming months and years.

Read the full article at LinuxInsider.

Ubuntu on the move more than in decline

Ubuntu has been taking some criticism and heat for its falling Distrowatch rankings. I don’t doubt that after years of popularity, we’re finally seeing a bit of a return to the desktop Linux world of old when a new distribution shot up every week or month, then faded, then re-appeared … and so on. However, when I consider where Canonical and Ubuntu are heading, I question the significance of desktop OS standing and Distrowach rankings.

First off, I must say that Ubuntu’s slip off the ‘king of the hill’ game on Distrowatch came at the expense of Linux Mint, another polished, user-friendly Linux. It wouldn’t surprise me if some Ubuntu users may be migrating to Mint or other distributions largely out of frustration or dislike of the new Unity interface over the previous primary interface, Gnome. However, I think the move will be worth it in the long run to Ubuntu, as I’ll explain further.

If considering desktop OS, the most important aspect to me as an enterprise software analyst is enterprise desktop, and Ubuntu does well there. I’m sure there are plenty of shops running other flavors of Linux, including Mint, Gentoo, Fedora, OpenSUSE, Debian and many, many others, but for corporate desktop, the list quickly thins. Nevertheless, this is where Canonical has had some big victories, including the French police. In terms of consumer and user desktop PCs, the category itself is disappearing into converged and touch-capable devices, further distancing us from the ‘distro wars’ of the past.

Still, the server is where the real action and revenue from Linux exist. Here, Ubuntu still faces a role-reversal from most Linux distributions, using desktop and developer popularity to fuel its use as a server OS, which is also helped by free availability and cloud computing. Ubuntu continues to benefit from its early move to cloud computing and its popularity among developers, but also still faces a huge challenge in monetizing use. Significantly, the latest version, Ubuntu 11.10, incorporates support for OpenStack (or Eucalyptus) and VMware Cloud Foundry PaaS. This could be significant given what we’ve seen from this type of integration and bundling in the past. In addition, Ubuntu benefits from being among the select few Linux distribution that exist in both free, community and paid, commercial form. As reported in our special report, ‘The Changing Linux Landscape,’ the existence of an unpaid community cousin can help drive commercial growth for paid, subscription Linux, as we’ve seen happen with free Ubuntu and paid Ubuntu, as well as Fedora and RHEL and OpenSUSE and SLES.

Finally, the explosion of smartphones, tablets and converged devices — many of them running embedded Linux — makes clear there is more opportunity in these newer devices than in the desktop PCs of old. Ubuntu got a good start in netbooks and continues to be among the most advanced netbook operating systems. This should help its move to smartphones, tablets, other mobile devices, TVs and more and this is where the payoff of Unity occurs. Canonical with Ubuntu may have a real advantage as a user-friendly, mobile Linux OS that can be used by OEMs and carriers without the intellectual property stress that has marked Android, which has nonetheless laid the groundwork for mobile Linux in the industry. In the end, the pain of leaving Gnome has been significant, but the promise of where Ubuntu is headed seems worth that pain.

New mobile Linux efforts reminiscent of old

Amid continued traction for Android, there have been a number of other developments for mobile operating systems based on Linux. Given my support for and belief in Linux and open source software, you might expect me to be bullish on the prospects for all of this mobile and device Linux. However, based on what I’ve seen in the past in terms of mergers, reshuffles and strategic restarts, I believe the introduction of the Tizen Linux-based OS is reminiscent of a time when mobile Linux wasn’t really moving ahead.

Almost three years ago, I wrote in 451 Group’s report,’Mobility Matters,’ that in spite of previous false starts and maneuvers — similar to the ones we’re seeing right now — mobile Linux and open source software were finally poised to break out of niche use. I saw potential in the LiMO Founation, Palm’s webOS, and particularly Android.

More recently came the introduction of Tizen. Though the Tizen project is backed by the Linux Foundation, the LiMO Foundation, and industry leaders including Intel and Samsung, it is a jolt to mobile Linux and open source developers since it effectively ends the MeeGo OS and project.

Read the full article at LinuxInsider.

Industry giants show some give on openness

Apple got lots of attention when it opened up a bit recently — allowing third-party tools to develop applications for its devices and disclosing its App Store guidelines publicly, a move that we and many others applaud.

While it got less attention, Google also opened up a bit more by allowing all OSI-approved open source licenses, including the AGPL on its Google Code, a move that was also met with cheers from some. This comes as a welcome change from Google, which had previously resisted the AGPL.

We believe both moves were facilitated most by these respective smartphone, software and IT industry giants’ efforts to better address their partners and users. We also think it is further evidence of the pressure of openness, brought about largely because of free and open source software and its growth across enterprise, cloud computing and mobile markets. We described this pressure previously when we talked about Apple, Google and even others leaving opportunity for more open alternatives. Just as we have discussed how open source software is playing a role in the latest debates and discussions about openness in the cloud, we believe that free and open source software and its ideals of transparency and openness are also playing a role in mobile software and devices.

Android is for real

The only thing as interesting and exciting as the reports and headlines on Android topping iPhone in smartphone sales in a recent quarter was the response from Apple, which downlplayed Android’s buzz-generating gains.

First off, smartphone commentaries should start with props to Apple for showing the way, but the company continues to leave and arguably generate opportunity for more open alternatives such as Android. Apple is correct that the recent sales figures are only a snapshot of time and customers, but it is also even further off when it talks about sales of iPod and iPod Touch devices, which are not smartphones.

As for Android, even if it was helped along by Apple-like advertising campaigns and two-for-one offers, the Linux-based, Apache-licensed mobile OS has undoubtedly made the biggest strides in the modern smartphone market we’ve seen since iPhone. I recall immense skepticism when we indicated in our CAOS report Mobility Matters way back in November 2008 that the first Android phone on the market, the G1, represented an impressive first step and a sign of fast, carrier-supported development and advancement thanks in large part to open source. Regardless of how significant its device maker and carrier support, including two for one deals, Android has done better than expected in the market. It certainly marks the furthest a mobile OS based on Linux has ever gone.

Much of the debate also centers on the pros and cons of: Apple’s control, which affords it unrivaled integration, but can also repel developers and third-parties; Android fragmentation, which on one hand means a variety of devices and versions, but on the other hand means they are more loosely tied together via applications.

We also see some of the same factors and circumstances for the tablet, where Apple is again arriving first and setting the bar as it sees fit, but where Android, fresh off of its impressive entry into smartphones, is also looming. We may also see Google’s Chrome browser and OS become more important in the tablet form factor, but it appears frankly there is far more hardware and device, developer, carrier and market momentum for Android right now.

Mobile open source and the rest-of-the-market opportunity

As we prepare to publish a new, special CAOS report on open source software licensing, I thought it might be fitting to revisit one of our previous reports, CAOS Report 10 – Mobility Matters, given all that’s going on and all the open source going in smartphones, e-readers, netbooks, and other devices where open source is being used more and more.

Much of the battle at the top of the smartphone market is, as we expected, occurring with continued disruption from Apple’s iPhone, marked most recently by its latest 3.0 software update. As we discussed in CAOS 10, the response, defense and offense from smartphone rival RIM seems to be helping it to maintain its BlackBerry dominance. These two certainly bring a lot of attention, but two Linux-based alternatives — Android and Palm’s Pre — are stealing some of the limelight and perhaps, as we predicted, more of the market.

Open source is also expanding its mobile footprint with the open sourcing of Symbian via the Symbian Foundation. This instantly gives open source more share of the mobile platform market, as Symbian remains popular and is pushing aggressively for new developers.

The bottom line is some real opportunity for mobile Linux and open source software as smartphones continue to grow, device makers continue to innovate and mobile devices converge with desktop and notebook PCs, as well as cloud computing.

Mobile Linux and other open source software aimed directly at the mobile makret now have the right backing in handset makers, carriers and commercialization players. It also has the right timing along with the renewed smartphone category activity and innovation ushered by Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s response and the entry of new players, primarily Google in the case of Android and mobile Linux. This will all serve to help mobile open source software quietly, but substantially grow its share of ‘the rest of the market.’

Will mobile open source learn from closed?

I’ve been talking to mobile OS, mobile middleware and mobile application vendors over the last few weeks as part of my research for another CAOS special report on open source in the mobile market. At the same time, the news has been full of headlines about the first Google Android phone, the outlook for an open-sourced Symbian and of course, Apple’s iPhone.

The timing seems interesting to me, as Google attempts to leverage a mobile Linux OS and open source to garner its usual developer strength, and Apple works to control its mobile OS and the applications that may or may not run on it.

No question Android is aimed primarily at extending Google’s own applications to mobile devices. I’ve also covered some of the issues with Google’s Chrome browser and overall open source strategy. However, compared to Apple, which has increasingly been the focus of skepticism from FOSS supporters, Google seems to be much more open, both in the sense of code and to the idea of third-party development. Google and Android are also getting some help from members of the Open Handset Alliance (HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Intel, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others). Despite a previous lack of mobile operator on board, T-Mobile has of course stepped up to sell services for the first Android phone, HTC’s G1. Google’s partnership with Amazon for Android support in its music store and a more open Android Market are also significant for Apple and the market.

If Google and OHA are not learning from Apple’s moves, both good and bad, there are others who may be able to take advantage of a more open approach. In fact, the two with perhaps the most to learn, Nokia’s open sourced Symbian and the larger LiMO consortium, are most likely to compete with one another given their strength and presence in markets outside of North America — mainly Asia and Europe. Interesting developments here include the recent inclusion of Open Kernel Labs and its embedded hypervisor technology in the Symbian Partner Network. As for LiMO, the mobile Linux consortium that includes membership from a number of hardware, software and mobile operator players, just announced a Panasonic phone that is the 23rd LiMO-compliant handset in the market.

Where will the mobile open source battle will be waged?

Attending the Open Mobile Exchange at OSCON today, I heard some differing perspectives on the role and impact of open source in the mobile software market. We heard from Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin how significant Linux is in the mobile and embedded spaces, some of the non-desktop Linux uses we predicted would be hot this year.

Zemlin recently commented that Nokia’s opening of the Symbian OS marks the beginning of a ‘full-scale war for the mobile OS.’ He talked about the flexibility advantages of Linux, and how only a full-scale OS development effort such as Linux will be able to keep up with the complexity, hardware, middleware and content of next-generation mobile devices.

Others, such as Stefano Maffulli from mobile open source player Funambol, say the mobile software battle will be fought at the browser-level. This next round of browser wars, however, will be characterized by a move to openness prompted by the need for interoperability, flexibility and the lessons of past, according to Maffulli.

Another view, held by Trolltech (now a Nokia company) Chief Technologist Benoit Schillings, is that the mobile operating system consists of low-level components common to all of the major systems and will not be as important going forward. Instead, Schillings sees the battle being fought at the software layers above the OS and in their interoperability and functionality with other devices, such as desktop and notebook computers.

While there is debate about where mobile open source software will have the greatest opportunities and the greatest fights, there seems to be agreement that open source, open standards and real openness will be a critical to mobile software going forward.

Mobile Linux – less open, less advantage

We had a feeling this might be a big year more for non-desktop Linux, particularly for mobile and embedded uses of the open source OS. This week’s deal by Finnish giant Nokia to pay more than $400m for total ownership of Symbian so it can open the OS has stoked the red hot mobile Linux and open source coals, just in time for summer BBQs.

Our Mobility Research Director Tony Rizzo says the move may help Symbian stay in the game, but he still sees challenges in shedding the ‘Nokia’s OS’ label.

Colleague and CAOS Research Director Raven Zachary believes Symbian (a storied, widely-used OS that has seen its share of market loss to Linux over recent years) may be akin to Sun Microsystems’ Solaris, which similarly saw Linux eat away at its share. I think the analogy is acurrate since in both cases, Linux (and Windows) have taken share, but the ‘older’ operating systems still remain strong in certain niches and geographies. Still, having seen many of its summer BBQ guests leave for the Linux party (a trend aided by LiMO Foundation and Google’s Android efforts), Nokia is now telling them all, ‘Hey, we’re now serving the same kind of beer at our Symbian party that they have over there with the Penguin.’

Time will tell how cool, or warm, the response is, but the Symbian as Solaris and the old proprietary OS as new open source questions also bring up a key point in the mobile Linux and open source discussion: it’s different here. Typically backed by a vendor or consortia, mobile Linux is usually less open and more pre-configured, pre-customized, etc. compared to Linux on the server. It is typically tuned and closed, as others point out, by vendors and consortia with their own objectives. Sure, it’s still flexible, modular and more accessible for developers, embedders, and application players, but this brings us to another big difference for Linux and open source in the mobile setting: the proprietary, mobile OSs are far more open than their server bretheren. They have to be for the hardware and ISVs. These differences can contributes to reducing the open advantage of Linux and open source.

Thus, I wonder whether the most open approach would have the most differentiation, impact and payoff by virtue of its adherence to true, open source development. I believe the vendor, consortia or community that can keep that open source advantage by keeping the code and development open is most likley produce innovation, growth and profit.

Nokia, which continues a significant bet on open source that also includes its $153m TrollTech acquisition from January 2008, believes it can stem Linux losses by making Symbian more open. However, I don’t think the opportunity lies in making a mobile OS that is almost as open as mobile Linux. The real p​rize, I believe, will be reserved for the OS that is more open than mobile Linux, at least in its present form(s). This could include a more open mobile Linux. When it comes to Linux or any other mobile OS, more open means more advantage.