Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Perhaps someday Android will be open

I really like Matt Asay — the founder of the OSBC is one of the most thoughtful people in the open source industry. (Brian Behlendorf, Chris DiBona and Cliff Schmidt are others who come to mind.)

But (and you knew there was a but) he’s really taking a lot on faith right now with Google, Android, the gPhone and the Open Vaporware Alliance.

The OVA is a Linux-based consortium copying the LiMo playbook, but about a 6-12 months behind. To use the term coined by researcher Sonali Shah, both LiMo and OVA are an example of a “gated source” community, not an open source one. Some people and companies are invited within the walls of the gated community and are allowed to participate, but others are not. That’s not open source.

The problem is that we don't know the real intentions of Google and Android: promises of openness are not openness. This also applies to LiMo and (given Nokia’s track record) to the proposed Symbian Foundation too.

In fact, that’s the whole point of open source — we don't have to rely on promises, because an approved open source license is a credible commitment that the code will be available in perpetuity.

However, even if Google releases the code someday under an open source license, that really doesn’t mean they’ve created a vibrant open source community. The IP license is only one of three dimensions of openness for sponsored open source communities, and there are plenty of examples of sponsored communities that do not provide openness on the other two dimensions, i.e. accessibility for outsiders to participate in development decisions and formal governance.

Thus far, Google’s open source projects seem to be limited to sharing code but not sharing power. I am not aware of an example (I could be wrong) of one with outside committers, although it appears that at least some less strategic projects allow outside patch suggestions (which the Google committers can accept or reject).

Even if Google’s consortium allows other firms to participate in formal governance, that doesn’t mean that it will be fully open or democratic. As with various totalitarian regimes, franchise or candidates may be limited to those who will vote the right way or those nominated for office may be vetted to vote the party line. Packing the board is quite common for consortia, trade associations, standards committees etc. — big boys like IBM, Intel, Microsoft and NTT do it, so there’s no reason to think Google and Nokia will resist the temptation.

So if Google’s promising to be open someday, maybe they will be. But Symbian Foundation or LiMo could get there first — or, for that matter, so could Microsoft, Apple or RIM if they wanted to. Lining up to endorse or promote Android because it’s “open” is like planning to take your vacation next summer at a hotel that has not yet been built.

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