Saturday, January 27, 2007

Is LiMo Gated or Open Source?

The use of Linux in mobile phones is one of the big growth areas for embedded Linux. As mobile CPUs got faster and RAM got bigger, the once ludicrous idea of putting Linux on a phone has become feasible. (For those don’t know the players in the mobile OS platform wars, the most detailed (free) analysis can be found in a comprehensive 52-page report by Andreas Constantinou of VisionMobile Ltd.)

Last June, several existing vendors of Linux-based mobile phones (as well as two of the world’s biggest operators) announced an alliance to try to create unified Linux standards. The players were:

  • NTT DoCoMo, NEC and Panasonic Mobile Communications, creators of the MOAP-L Linux stack used for some of NTT’s phones. (Other DoCoMo phones use the MOAP-S platform based on the Symbian OS)
  • Motorola, the 2nd largest cell phone maker, whose EZX platform is based on code from MontaVista and Trolltech
  • Samsung, the 3rd largest cell phone maker
  • Vodafone, which as the world’s largest mobile phone operator, would like to sell more commodity handsets
Conspiciously absent was Nokia (the world’s largest handset maker again in 2006), which has released two Linux-based WiFi tablets but (thus far) no Linux GSM phones.

This week, the alliance got a new name and formal structure. The LiMo Foundation has been incorporated in Delaware but is headquartered in England. Aspects of the foundation appear patterned after the Eclipse Foundation, the most successful open source R&D consortium to date.

The Mobile Phone Development blog (where I learned of the new foundation), dug through the documents and found that they suggest the technical scope and architecture for the planned collaboration.

As someone who researches open source governance and communities, I found something else to be even more interesting. The nine-page white paper outlining the Foundation’s goals and structure says:
Membership in the Foundation is open, subject only to the payment of dues while access to the Foundation source code is subject solely to being a Member and compliance with a security-related self-certification and other specified security measures. [Emphasis added]
Unless I misread this, they are creating what Sonali Shah terms a “gated source” community — not an open source community — in which only members inside a “gate” get access to the source code. (Her recently published paper explains more about the concept).

One way to read this is that they made a simple mistake, and they actually intend to share derivative works of the GPL-licensed Linux with the entire world, without fee or membership. After, this is the way that embedded Linux is supposed to work. The other way to read this is that the partners just don’t “get” open source: Motorola has gotten criticism for not sharing EZX changes, while NEC and another Panasonic division were part of the CE Linux Forum, which also had trouble cooperating in an open community.

So far, Nokia has done much better. While Nokia often tries to be a vertically integrated company and push its own standards, on open source (and the 770 and 800), they appear to get it. Another open source research colleague, Sebastian Spaeth of ETH Z├╝rich, is preparing a case study documenting what Nokia did and why.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

No comments: