Distilling market noise into market sense

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Mapping open source into mobile: who, where and how

[Android, Symbian Foundation, Maemo, Trolltech… there’s been so much talk about open source moves in the mobile industry, but so little analysis on the big picture.  Andreas Constantinou distils market noise into market sense by mapping out three dimensions of open source in mobile: the who, the where and the how.]

Open signWithout a doubt, 2008 has been the year where open source has transitioned from a status of early adoption to one of acceptance and endorsement by the mobile industry’s who’s who as a recipe for collaborative software development.

The Android launch, the Symbian acquisition and open source roadmap, Intel’s Moblin 2.0 and OpenedHand acquisition, Nokia’s adoption of WebKit as a feature of the S40 platform, the Trolltech acquisition and incorporation of Qt on S60, Purple Labs acquisition of Openwave and Sagem assets, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform… it seems that in the space of just one year open source has transitioned all of a sudden from geekware for Linux enthusiasts to a succesful commercial alternative to closed-door standards.  Moving forward, 2009 will be the year of maturity for how open source can be used as a tool for cheaper, faster collaborative software development, which reduces barriers to entry and breeds innovation.

Yet rarely do analysts, bloggers or media cover the big picture of open source use in mobile; in other words who is using open source, where are they using it and under what terms (i.e. the license and governance terms). Here I ‘ll attempt to do just that; paint the big picture of mobile open source against three dimensions, the who, the where and the what

1. The Who’s Who
Who is who in mobile open source? The following table provides a near-complete list of who’s who, from operating systems to development tools and industry initiatives. Naturally, the table excludes the 100s of smaller open source software projects that have been used in some capacity in one phone or other.

Table: who’s who in mobile open source

Linux support packages Wind River (also one of the most prominent integrators for mobile Linux stacks), MontaVista
Operating systems for feature phones: Purple Labs; for smartphones: Azingo, Access Linux Platform, A la Mobile, OpenMoko; for MIDs: Intel Moblin, Ubuntu Mobile. Also OKL4 is virtualisation (hypervisor) software for mobile phones.
Middleware GNOME’s GTK+ and related projects (e.g. D-Bus, Gstreamer), the graphics subsystem of Nokia’s Qt and the db4o database engine.
Application environments Google’s Android, Nokia’s Maemo, Nokia’s Qt, Eclipse eRCP, Sun’s Java phone ME, Motorola’s Java MIDP3, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform and Nokia’s Web Runtime
Browsers Apple’s WebKit (on the verge of becoming a de facto standard for web-centric service delivery) and Firefox Mobile
Service deliv. platforms Funambol (consumer email sync), Volantis (content adaptation)
Development tools Eclipse Foundation (manages the Eclipse IDE, used as the basis for Nokia’s Carbide, Wind River tools and many others). Plus RhoMobile – a new set of open source developer tools for creating connected enterprise apps on smartphones.
Industry initiatives Symbian Foundation (EPL license), Open Handset Alliance (APL2 license), LiMo Foundation (open source as it builds on top of Linux), GNOME Mobile and Embedded (LGPL-licensed GTK+ and related software)

There are also a couple of initiatives which are associated with ‘openness’ but are not related to open source; Microsoft Shared Source is a complex array of 10s of different licenses involving access to source code for Microsoft software, only two of which have been approved by the Open Source Initiative, the gatekeeper of open source license compliance; and the Adobe Open Screen Project which does not employ open source licensing at all.

2. The Where
Where is open source software used in mobile phones ? The following table provides a 10,000 foot view of where open source licensed software is used within a mobile phone, from the kernel to applications. The rule of thumb is that the lower you go towards the base of the software stack, the more open source software you ‘re likely to find.

Table: where is open source used in mobile phone software

Kernel + base oper. system In a Linux-based OS, 90% of the kernel and base OS (drivers, base services) is community-sourced and unmodified, while 10% is community sourced and modified. The drivers for the modem stack are always closed source.
Middleware Where GTK+ is used (e.g. traditionally NEC and Panasonic phones), about 30% of the middleware stack is open source licensed based on the GNOME family of multimedia middleware (e.g. Gstreamer, D-Bus)
Application environments The percentage of open source software ranges from 100% in the case of Android and OpenMoko to 0% in the vast majority of feature phones where a proprietary Java ME engine is used.
Applications Applications are nearly 100% closed source, with the exception where WebKit is used as the browser.

Open source licensing is also used in server software; most notably in Funambol’s email synchronisation server and Volantis’ Mobility Server, a device identification and content adaptation framework. Network infrastructure vendors like Nokia Siemens sell Linux-based boxes and software, but that doesn’t really imply an open source product.

3. The How
How is open source used in mobile? In other words, what are the licenses and the governance models employed in open source projects?

Several major mobile open source projects use a weak copyleft license (e.g. EPL, LGPL or MPL). Generally speaking, weak copyleft licenses carry some obligations for publishing source code modifications if distributed, but clauses around derivatives are less strict so can be used with proprietary software. The APL2 (non-copyleft) license is also popular – it is used in Google’s Android, Motorola’s planned MIDP3 release and AOL’s Open Mobile Platform.  Note how the GPL license, by far the most popular license in PC and Internet OSS projects is rarely used in mobile. This is one of the reasons for the zero adoption of Sun’s Java phone ME by handset OEMs and the same reason why Qt will have to be re-licensed under a more permissive license if Nokia wants to see it adopted by other handset OEMs.

Governance models vary widely; from Funambol’s moderator-based incorporation of contributions, to a single-company control over contributions, as is the case with Apple’s popular WebKit browser core. There’s lots more parameters to a governance model – particularly control over the release schedule, membership-only access, membership fees and IP ownership, but this a lengthy topic that deserves a separate discussion.

The next table summarises the license type and governance model (how contributions are managed) for popular mobile open source projects (see also earlier article on community dynamics).

Figure: comparing community governance models and licenses for popular OSS projects Comparing licenses vs governance models

Here it’s worth shedding some light over a common misperception; an open source license does not imply a zero licensing cost.

For example many Linux-based OS vendors like Wind River, Azingo and Purple Labs are charging per-unit royalties for the software. As another example, the Symbian Foundation has vowed to release Symbian OS code under an EPL license, while members of the Foundation will have access to source code under a zero royalty license, for a flat membership fee of $1,500 per year. However the Symbian Foundation hasn’t publicised the fees members will have to pay for shipping handsets with the Symbian Foundation code; if the Foundation is to support is sub-500 staff (numbers according to Lee Williams), then the effective license fees should be in the region of millions of dollars per year per member.

Updated: OK Lab’s OKL4, a virtualisation (hypervisor) software engine is available under a dual license (commercial and a copyleft-like license similar to the one used by Sleepycat). OK Labs does not open contributions to the OKL4 engine, but instead supports a community of value-add software contributors that develop on top of the OKL4 engine.

Comments welcome as always. And thanks to LinuxDevices and the O’ Reilly Radar for covering this article.

– Andreas

[If you ‘d like to find out more about open source in mobile, check out our 360 degree workshop, a one-day deep-dive into everything and anything that is mobile open source, from economics and business models to license best practices, software management guidelines and 20+ case studies of real world lessons from open source use in the mobile industry.

You can also download our free research report on GPL2 vs GPLv3: The two seminal open source licenses,  their roots, consequences and repercussions.]

Update: We ‘ve been voted as the best blog in the Mobile Comms category by  Electronics Weekly Magazine!

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  • David C

    WebKit is available under a BSD-style license. WebCore and JavaScriptCore are available under LGPL.

  • Thanks David – I 've fixed this, placing WebKit under the permissive line of licenses.

  • David Terei

    There is also OKL4, an L4 microkernel which I believe is used in the G1 phone a a hypervisor.


  • Hi Andreas, nice post.

    Unfortunately I really do not agree with you when you say:

    "However the Symbian Foundation hasn’t publicised the fees members will have to pay for shipping handsets with the Symbian Foundation code; if the Foundation is to support is sub-500 staff (numbers according to Lee Williams), then the effective license fees should be in the region of millions of dollars per year per member."

    EPL speaks clearly and once the code will be disclosed publicly (no reason to chose an open source license like EPL if you're not going to disclose) everyone will be able to use it.

    EPL is very similar to ASL (Android) the only difference lies on the "derivative work" weak copyleft clause that's inside EPL (and not in ASL).

    And, really, having Symbian asking for per-handset fees facing a "zero royalties" Android is a sure defeat IMHO.

    Hope this time the comment will be published. Last time was detectes as spam.

  • David,

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention – I 'm waiting for a response from OKL before updating the post.

    Ciao Simone,

    There are two distinct concepts that open source projects introduce: the license and the governance model. Although a lot has been written and understood about licenses, governance models are still the subject of research (for example this excellent Feb 2008 paper from West and O' Mahony).

    The governance model of the Symbian Foundation is not yet publicized. When publicized, it will detail who has commit rights to the Symbian Foundation code, how are contribution conflicts arbitrated, how much do members pay, what is the process for becoming a member etc.

    It's very important to note that a license is relatively independent of the governance model; whereas an OSI license will detail your obligations and rights for using, modifying and dstributing code, it will not say how the community dynamics around that code will work; this is determined by the governance and can vary widely from single-company controlled projects (e.g. WebKit) to fully autonomous communities.

    In both theory and practice, Symbian Foundation will have a headcount to support. with circa 250 people, this works out to an OPEX of 2.5M dollars per year, which divided across each of the five OEMs with a board seat, this means 5M dollars per OEM member. Now whether you call these annual fees or you translate these into per unit fees, is simple nomenclature. In practice, SF will be maintained out of primarily the OEMs' pockets, whereas Android will be maintained out of Google's pockets (AFAIK); I wouldn't say this is a defeating point for SF, but certainly one OEMs will consider.

    – Andreas

  • Hi again Andreas,

    thanks very much for this detailed answer, I'll check the paper you pointed out.

    Anyway, some details about the foundation governance have been shared (check here: http://www.smartphoneshow.com/files/_12.30_ica_sy… ) and it seems, with no doubt, that the code will be publicly available.

    I really do not see any reason for an OEM to pay so much and to see the OS assets publicly available to other competitors.

    IMHO to mantain the headcount of ex-Symbian people wil l be completely in charge of Nokia.

    There are so many big differences between OHA and SF but actually the first one seems more genuine and strategically framed into the Leader's business model than the second.

    Let's see.

    Thanks again for sharing our views.


  • Hi Simone,

    Symbian employees are now Nokia employees, but Symbian Foundation employees will be hired from multiple places, including Symbian.

    OHA has a dark sides, too; source code contributions are controlled by Google, whereas the Symbian Foundation will be technically neutral in managing source code commits.


  • Mark Wilcox

    Hi Andreas,

    Actually I agree with Simone. Although you're right that the biggest OEMs will share the cost of developing and maintaining the Symbian Foundation platform, there won't be any per-unit royalties – the license is clear. OEMs will only have to pay to have some say in the governance (board seats for the big paying members). Once the whole thing is under the EPL there's absolutely nothing to stop cheap far eastern OEMs piggy-backing the efforts of the others for free.

    The other issue I'd raise is on open source at the bottom of the stack. Actually a lot of drivers are still closed source. OpenMoko – the most open platform of all – even had some binary blobs down at the very bottom for a long time because the silicon vendors wouldn't play the open source game (which prompted them to find a new vendor). Hopefully this effect is reducing now but it was very common and troublesome and there have been a lot of debates about the legality of closed source Linux drivers.

    Last tiny picky point on your comments above – Symbian employees won't officially become Nokia employees until 1st Feb, despite the acquisition closing.


  • Hi Mark,

    Agreed, there are no per-unit royalties, but that's nomenclature. The substantial fees needed to fund the OPEX costs from the five OEM members should be in the order of $5M per year per OEM member shipping devices. Whether you consider this to be royalties, membership fees or maintenance costs is simply a question of how OEMs are accounting for this cost. The essence of the matter is that the Symbian Foundation will have a substantial OPEX and the OEMs need to pay for that, as no-one else will.

    Now far eastern OEMs may re-use the EPL-licensed OS code internally, but I suspect that in the terms of SF membership there might be a limiting clause.. again goes back to my point that you can have open source code with a closed governance model. We won't know for sure until the SF governance model is published.

    Re: open source use at the bottom of the stack. Agreed – and it's mentioned in the post ("the drivers for the modem stack are always closed source.")

    Re: status of Symbian employees: yes, you are right, 1st Feb is the effective date for the new employment contracts taking effect.

    So, clearly a lot of the 'openness' of the Symbian Foundation is opaque for now. We will know for sure when the terms of the governance model are published.


  • Mark Wilcox

    …but companies don't have to join any foundation to use EPL'd code. The worst the Symbian Foundation could do is refuse to allow the use of the brand (and the compatibility scheme is planned to be voluntary anyway). The point about using a real open source license is that you can't force people to play fair with the legal system beyond the terms of the license.


  • Nice blog post! How about adding db4o (an open source embedded database) to the list? <a href="http://(http://www.db4o.com)” target=”_blank”>(http://www.db4o.com)



  • Hi German,

    Thanks for the heads-up. I 've added db4o to the table of who's who in mobile open source.


  • Enjoyed this big picture view of the space. I think you might be interested in Rhomobile and Rhodes <a href="http://(http://rhomobile.com)” target=”_blank”>(http://rhomobile.com) in the mobile middleware space. Its a bit more focused on the mobile scenario than Qt for example.


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