Open source brings a host of benefits to the mobile market, starting with cost savings. But as Jack Wallen explains, the advantages go much further - from better security to more customization options to more prolific application development.
The mobile industry is getting really interesting. We have finally reached a point where the smart phone is actually smart and the average user can gain serious benefits from its usage. How did this come about? In a word: Competition.
When the iPhone arrived on the scene, users scrambled to get their hands on Apple's sexy gadget, and competitors scrambled to make a device that would have the same appeal. It's taken a while, but the competition has arrived. Android phones, Palm Pre, Blackberry Bold — they are all outstanding entries into this market. But two of those entries will, in my opinion, outshine the rest for one simple reason — open source. Why is open source going to help raise these phones above the competition? I have 10 reasons why.
Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.
1: Open standards
With the iPhone, you do what Apple says, you follow Apple standards, and you use only Apple-approved apps (unless you jailbreak your phone). With both the Android-based phones and the Palm Pre, open standards are not just a bullet point or buzz phrase — open standards will be adhered to. And this appearance will have lasting effects. Software will be easier to develop, Web sites will load as expected (and will be easier to develop for the mobile device), and hardware accessories will be more readily available.
2: More applications
As it stands, the iPhone is the king of the app. It seems for just about everything, Apple has an "app for that." But as the Android phones and the Pre begin to be more widely used, apps for those phones will multiply exponentially. Why? First, the application development process won't be crippled by the same acceptance process Apple has. Anytime you want to develop an application for something, Apple will strike you down if it is something already native to the iPhone. You want a different browser on your iPhone? No luck. I look for mobile versions of Firefox and Chrome to both appear on the Pre and the Android-based phones. This will continue until one (or both) app stores surpass the Apple app store.
Sooner or later, security is going to become a big issue with mobile computing. Apple has already shown that it can be painfully slow at releasing updates for the iPhone. Because of the open source nature of the competition, updates will not be so slow to arrive. So when a security hole or flaw is found, the update will find its way to the end user much faster. Of course, it's not really just about the updates. The very foundation of the Pre and the Android phone is Linux based, so it's going to enjoy a more fundamental security than, say, any of the Windows Mobile phones available. And although mobile phone security has yet to really become a widespread issue, with smart phones becoming the norm, it will be soon enough.
I have been an iPhone owner since the first gen device. One of my biggest beefs with this phone is how little you can customize it. It's not theme-able. For a device that is supposed to be the pinnacle of hip, this is a setback. With the open source version of the smart phone, you can be sure you will be able to theme and customize it. Sites have already started appearing, such as Pimp My Pre. I know this isn't a deal breaker for people like IT professionals. But the average user (those who make up the largest demographic of smart phone users) want to be able to make their phones look just the way they want. Will this make the smart phone work better? No. But this sort of functionality will draw users who are interested in pimping out their phones. The Facebook generation will comply.
I'm not talking 3G, EDGE, or Wifi — I'm talking about connectivity to your PC. Synching. With the iPhone, you can synch with iTunes and that's pretty much it. If you're willing to sign up for Mobile Me, you can then have a roundabout way of synching to your Gmail account. But what about anyone using something outside of iTunes? The Pre will show up on your machine as a standard mass storage device, so drag and drop will be seamless. Because of this, the open source community will be working much magic with various synching options. It will be only a matter of time before the Pre is synching with Evolution and Amarok (or Rhythmbox). And synching will work on nearly any platform. So with the Pre and the Android phones, you will be able to synch with OS X, Windows, and Linux. Cross-platform goodness. Top that Apple and Windows Mobile!
I am already planning a migration over to either an Android-based phone or a Pre as soon as AT&T opens its arms to one (which should be soon). One reason that appeals to me at the moment is cost. The total cost of ownership over a two-year period for the iPhone 3G is $3,799. The TCO for the Android G1 is $3,149. The TCO for the Pre is $2,599. The difference between the iPhone and the Pre is $550, which is approximately $22 per month cheaper. This will allow me to have more than one smart phone in the family. (The wife will be happy about that fact.) And in our current economy, any savings is good savings. How are they able to keep this cost down? No OS upcharges. Why? Open source.
This is one of the aspects about the iPhone that bothers me the most. If I am on the EDGE network and I accidentally click the mail button, I can pretty much give up on using my phone for a bit. And I have had a number of occasions when an alarm has canceled a phone call. The iPhone simply can't multitask. Both the Android and the Pre can. You want to have more than one application open at once, feel free if you're on the Pre. If you're on the iPhone, forget it. And let's face it — we are a society of multitaskers. So why would you want to use the DOS of smart phone OSes? The operating system powering both the Pre and the Android is Linux, and it was created for multitasking and networking.
8: Push Gmail
Most of the Google applications are built right into the Pre OS. Because of this, there will not only be seamless integration but you will be able to have your Google mail delivered to your phone without having to do a single thing. No more having to open up the mail client and wait for your Gmail to download. Now you open up that client and the mail is already there. This feature will also work with the Android phones. Of course, you can have your iPhone check your Gmail frequently so that it seems like Push. And an open source Gmail API (Web Storage Portability Layer) has already been developed. Because of this, the Pre and the Android will enjoy a much richer integration with Gmail. Before long, one (or both) of these phones will have seamless integration with tools like eGroupware and Zimbra.
Do you remember that Verizon commercial where the spokesperson has a massive amount of people with him to represent the Verizon network? You can apply the same analogy to the developer network for the Pre and the Android. The sum total of open source developers across the globe is fairly staggering. Imagine having that collective whole working to create interesting, helpful applications, as well as bettering the total experience with the phone. That is what awaits the smart phone based on open source technology. This model has proven effective on the Linux operating system. When a bug is found, it is patched quickly and efficiently. The same thing should hold true with the Pre and the Android. When you have that many people working toward a common goal, that goal will be reached in a hurry. And you can imagine how the collective open source development community would love to take down the behemoth known as Apple.
How long do you think it will be before the open source community has created a super-light version of Apache to run on the Pre? Imagine being able to carry your own Web server around with you. How much geek cred will that bring? And it won't end there. The open source community will find many creative ways to use the Palm Pre. Mail servers, CMSes, network security tools — the possibilities are endless! Soon, you'll probably see a standard Linux desktop on the device. Hopefully, if someone does manage to do that, they will at least leave the phone feature intact.
Beyond the cost
Naturally, cost is one of the biggest "features" open source brings to the mobile market. But now you should see how being a part of the open source community will benefit the world of smart phones. Can you think of other ways open source will benefit smart phones? Can you think of ways it will hinder them? Let your fellow TechRepublic know what you think.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.