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10 reasons why open source makes sense on smart phones

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.

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.

3: Security

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.

4: Customization

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.

5: Connectivity

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!

6: Cost

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.

7: Multitasking

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.

9: Developers

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.

10: Creativity

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.

About

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.

13 comments
derekball614
derekball614

Many thanks for making the effort to consider this viewpoint, I feel intensive about points and would like to learn a few things on this thing. Probably, as you get knowledge, would you care renewing your web site with a great deal of more info? It???s very benificial for me. Mike Piters CEO @ Proactol Plus

klontarf
klontarf

Sitting until 5 AM trying to crack my Nokia E71's new firmware to be able to install the nice features I gotten used too, like turning it into a wifi network disk that pops up every time I get in range from home, and other neat stuff. Dear God give me an alternate OS... I cant take any more of this Big Brother software... And I am sure the people of Iran would agree that it would be nice to not have the government listening in all the time http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8112550.stm Open Source is a Right of the user! Software should stay soft! Help my smartphone stay smart! Please stop me from creating more slogans!

PaloAltoWorldView
PaloAltoWorldView

I agree with at least 99% of the article. However, doesn't at least almost all of it also apply to the Blackberry, which is based on standards-based Java? Applications written for Blackberry can be sold from anywhere, and you can also apply to have them included on AppWorld, which appears to be a lot more liberal in its acceptance criteria compared to Apple's AppStore. So isn't Blackberry pretty much on par with Google/Android and Palm Pre / WebOS?

olevine
olevine

I agree that open platforms have significant advantages over closed ones, but not all of the advantages you mention here, particularly the application value chain (#2) are necessarily advantages of "open source" as such. Beyond that, it's worth remembering that Android and Pre are not the only open mobile devices in town. Almost all of these advantages apply equally well to Symbian devices that ship today. My Nokia E71 already supports multitasking (No. 7) and push Gmail (No. 8), and of course, can already run the Nokia Mobile Web Server (http://mymobilesite.net/) (No. 10). -Oren Levine (from Nokia technology marketing)

david.valdez
david.valdez

You make several points that aren't accurate. I sync my gmail account with my iPhone in real time every 15 minutes. While I have no desire to sync my google calendar, I can do that as well. Moreover, as a pioneer of the Linux revolution, I can say that most of your list is the same old tired, rah-rah rhetoric that has not helped Linux become the desktop standard. The Android phones could become interesting in the future, but if Palm continues to lobotomize the Pre with non-licensed interfaces, it will never live in corporate America.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

[i]The total cost of ownership over a two-month period for the iPhone 3G is $3,799. [/i] Is it safe to assume this sentence should read "The total cost of ownership over a two-[u]year[/u] period..."? edit: typo ;\

santeewelding
santeewelding

Let me know when they reduce it to the function and dimensions of a business card. I will hand them out like candy.

z3r0sp4c3
z3r0sp4c3

Eh, I agree that open source is great for smart phones, and a lot of your points make sense, but IMHO the biggest factor is that the competition is good. When one company come out with something great, another makes something better, then somebody makes something better than that. The back-and-forth one-upmanship is good for all smart phones, not just those that use open source. Personally, I would prefer an iPhone myself (if I could afford it), but I own a Palm Centro and am plenty happy with it. To each his/her own.

dalsobrooks
dalsobrooks

This isn't really about open source. It's about bashing the iPhone. Which is fine, if that's what you want to do, it's just the title is misleading. And garnering clicks it doesn't deserve.

Christinme7890
Christinme7890

From what I understand, you are speaking from a developer stand point and so you sort of speak for all devs. But, I beg you to think about the draw backs. I will respond to your 10: 1) Open standards is basically a oxymoron. By open you mean that anything goes essentially. But by standards you mean that there are a set of rules. So these rules are more silent buy deadly rules. Silent because most honest devs will adhere to them but there are many devs that won't and this is why apple does it properly. Sure, I will agree that some of their standards are awful, but I like to think that they have the best interests of the consumer in mind. Any dev can program in a virus or something bad. Why do you think that there are so many viruses for the PC. Any one with knowledge of C/C++/C# could program anything they want like password crackers and keyloggers. 2) The key phrase in this section is "widely used". The only way a phone will be widely used among the consumers is if it caters not only to the average joe who knows little about tech and the high tech geeks and devs. The only way that a phone will be widely used is if it is easy to use for all and my experience is that open source is not that easy. One great example of open source being very accessible is what Ubuntu does with its collection of software that you can download using one simple install technique. The pre and google have this but the acceptance is not as good because the pre and google have horrible sdk kits. I have used the Apple SDK and it is so easy that without experience I could make an app. Not a good app but for a starting app it is impressive. 3) What you are missing is the fact that Apple takes it time in releasing an app because it wants to make sure that the app is not rigged with a virus or bug or Trojan or whatever. Open source does allow for a quick way to release apps and even if you can easily update quickly, that small span between when an app is released and when a patch is released to fix a potentially hazardous bug is enough time to piss some people off. Not to mention there is no one to police the apps that are being released which means that open source would be more prone to bugs, virus, etc. 4) Yes I would love to customize my iphone and I have when it is jailbroken but it often is not easy to customize. In my experience with the pre and iphone and customizing both, it is a pain in the but to install customizations. Why do you think many of the forums are filled with people asking, "how do I install this." If they made it uber easy and simple for the normal consumer (not dev or geek) to customize then you have something. The problem lies in the fact that open source devs are not acting as one group. They are acting as many different little groups and hence there is so much confusion among the average joe user. 5) I find my mobileme/mac syncing with my apple very easy and simple which is what the average user wants. I have all my other emails from google and emory forwarded to my mobileme and then it is all pushed to my iphone. Yes the pre probably has apple beat here because it pushes everything and it does it easy enough that the end user is not too confused. I think you are pretty much spot on here and Apple is slowly working on it. They just added sync notes, now if they added a todo app that pushed through mobile me they would be in service. And of course to work for devs/business people better if they allowed easy sync with google and MS.exg they would be set. But then people wouldn't use apple products. 6) Cost is a big issue and you are right. Open source is a ton cheaper. But when you (when I) buy apple products I know that I am getting great customer service. I don't have to worry about finding the dev sit that supports the current open source software and then going through the trouble of getting help. Apple looks for quality over speed which benefits them in the long run because people don't have to worry about the quick buggy release of a new piece of software. People pay for more than just product when they buy Apple. 7) There are many things the pre and google can't multitask. Most of the time it is the carrier's fault for the lack of multitasking. But, on a mobile device multitasking is not always good. The pre is a great example. I have numerous (about 5) people that I know who complain about the battery life. They don't pay attention to all the apps open and the result is the battery dying after a few hours. Pre handles multitasking pretty well, but the phone gets slow and then you have to worry about which apps to close and just closing them. This adds to the pain of using the app. People want quick and efficiant and while simply closing an app is easy it still adds to the burden of using the phone. 8) Yes push gmail is good. Mobileme does the same thing as well as a lot more (20gig space, website development, etc). I have not personally experienced the integration of google with the pre because I have only played with the device for a few hours and it wasn't mine. 9) This is the sentence that bugs me, "Imagine having that collective whole working to create interesting, helpful applications, as well as bettering the total experience with the phone." It bugs me because all the open source devs don't really work together in anyway. Look at the million of different OS packages of linux. There are so many that people get confused about what does what. What apple does is that they have many different separate groups of devs that all submit apps and it flows through another set of devs that decide whether the app is "good enough" to hit the shelves or itunes. Not to mention the Apple SDK is very easy to use which makes developing easy which means devs can develop quicker and make money quicker. 10) I had my wife read this number and she didn't understand a word you said. The problem with devs is they want to be creative. This is a really good thing and I personally wish more apple apps were more creative. But, and this is the biggest thing, you are speaking as a dev. Common folk don't care or even want to know about these things. They want to know they can check their mail, communicate socially (facebook, twitter, etc), and have fun. And the biggest thing is that devs only make up a small percentage of americans (or humans for that matter). Ending insight) the only way that open source will make it big time is if developers realize that the majority of the people in the world don't speak "geek" and make their apps UBER (caps for emphasis) easy to install and use. Open source, as of now, is only popular among devs and computer geeks. These people only make up a very small percentage of the people.

Izzmo
Izzmo

Read that and thought the exact same thing!

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

but the more I read, the more I became convinced you only responded because the article didn't hold the iPhone up as the be-all-end-all of smart phones.