Saturday, August 9, 2008

LiMo moving forward

Normally every August, I attend the LinuxWorld SF conference. It’s a handy way of catching up on what’s going on in open source. However, this last week while LinuxWorld was in Moscone I was back in the Boston area at the user/open innovation conference.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there, because it sounds like it would have been an opportunity to learn the latest about LiMo and their plans to create an embedded Linux mobile phone platform.

LiMo announced seven new handsets, for a total of 21 now available using the LiMo combined Linux and mobile-specific stack.

On the one hand, LiMo is much further along than the world’s most famous embedded Linux alliance the gPhone aka Android aka the Open Vaporware Alliance. On the other hand, it’s well behind the 77 shipping phones (at last count) that Symbian has attracted while supplying two-thirds of the world’s smart phones.

Right now, the LiMo handsets appear to be mainly Motorola (which has been toying with Linux for years) and NTT DoCoMo (which could hurt Symbian’s Japan business). Samsung, Motorola and LG — the world’s #2, #3 and #5 handset makers — are all hedging their bets between LiMo, OVA and Symbian.

Limo’s marketing director claims that LiMo is pressuring Symbian with its openness, and dismissed Nokia’s plans for a Symbian Foundation:

“It means we're moving toward a more collaborative environment,” he said. “We see it as an endorsement of the strategy we developed. LiMo has had an advanced and intricate governance model, and now analysts have said the governance model they're working on for Symbian will be very similar, so we see it is a validating point for the idea of collaboration and openness. It allows us to shift the conversation around openness from debating its merits to talking about tactics.”
Although I have personal (and professional) ties to Symbian, I’ve not talked to anyone in authority at LiMo, Symbian Foundation (Nokia) or the OVA. However, as an analyst, I would say this statement counts as blowing smoke. Here’s why:
  • LiMo has shipping product, little market share, but still is a gated source project, with a minimum admission fee of $40k/year.
  • Symbian has market share, has shared source with its licensees (including the world’s five biggest handset makers), but hasn’t started either the gated or open source process.
  • Android has neither open source nor handsets (yet).
Neither LiMo nor Symbian (let alone OVA) are open source communites. As any one knowledgeable about open source will tell you, gated source is not open source.

There’s no reason for Symbian (or Android) to copy LiMo’s “open source” strategy because there’s nothing to copy. The only successful model for an industry cooperative open source effort is the IBM-founded Eclipse (which borrowed many ideas from Apache), and it’s clear that Nokia is planning to copy Eclipse. Its planned $1,500 annual fee (same as Symbian’s newest commercial program) is a long way from LiMo’s $40,000.

So someday at least one company will have an open source mobile phone platform that is fully open in terms of production, governance and IP. (It’s possible that LiMo and Android will merge, but given the egos involved, I don’t see it happening before 2010). Who will get there first?

I think it comes down to business models. As I mentioned yesterday, one of my favorite papers is about how “open” turns out to be both a loaded word and a fuzzy concept. It costs a lot of money to run an open source foundation, let alone keep the code current and up to date. Charging money for gated source is one way to support the effort, which falls apart if you actually move to an open live code repository.

If you can’t charge for source, another way to pay the bills is to cross-subsidize the efforts from another profit source. LiMo doesn’t have a sugar daddy, but both Android and Symbian do. So from an economic (rather than technical or organization) sense, both OVA and Symbian will have a much easier time opening the kimono than will LiMo.

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