Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Apples, Androids, and the Open Source Movement

Androids, Apples and the open source community

Created By: Eric Sisler
The year is 1876. George B. Selden sees George Brayton’s “Ready Motor” at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The light bulb goes on (which technically wasn’t invented until 3 years later) and by 1878, Selden successfully tests a one cylinder, 400-pound internal combustion engine containing an enclosed crankshaft.

With all the buzz about a “horseless carriage,” the application is obvious. Selden applies for a patent in 1879, which is granted in 1895 after several amendments that included the use of the engine in an automobile.

Some guy named Henry Ford comes along and, in 1911, wins a 10-year legal battle against Selden that essentially renders his patent invalid. The Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association is born and begins the open sharing of patents among members. The Detroit auto industry goes gangbusters and thus begins the era of U.S. auto manufacturing. Selden decides to go with a much improved idea, the Selden Truck Sales Corp. Oh yeah, everyone remembers that one (eyes rolling).

Now let’s move forward a few years, past Edison’s light bulb, to 1997. Eric Raymond, a hacker, releases his now legendary paper “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” at the Linux Kongress (OK, legendary among hackers and nerds), which is credited with prompting Netscape to do something that was unheard of among the increasingly proprietary, profit-driven software companies at the time: release its source code to the open source community, essentially, the public. The open source movement, founded in 1983 by Richard Stallman, comes out of the fringes and the Open Source Initiative is born.

Open source has contributed to almost every major operating system used in corporate America (and hacker basements), with the exception of Microsoft Windows, since 1983. Even the Mac OS is based on open source components.

Open source also produced two very popular mobile device platforms, iOS and Android, while one of the pioneers in the mobile device world, Research In Motion, failed to adopt the open source mindset and has dropped from a 15.4 percent market share in the third quarter of 2010 to 11 percent in the same quarter in 2011, according to a study by the Gartner Group. Shoulda read your history, guys. That little outage in October didn’t help.

Anyway, why the history spiel?

If I have done my job, you have probably drawn some parallels between the early days of the automobile manufacturers and our two favorite mobile operating systems. It seems to be crystal clear that an open community of contributors just comes up with better stuff than someone trying to hold all the cards like Selden or RIM. Even Steve Jobs saw the benefits of having the open source community on his side.

Part of the open source agreement says that you have to “give back” by sharing any improvements you make to an open source project with the community. That had to be a hard one for Steve, but Apple and the open source community are better for it.

Apple, the road less traveled

Smartphones have been around since 1993. I’m sure you all remember the IBM Simon, right? Well, as cool as that was, Apple completely redefined what a smartphone was on June 29, 2007, when it released the iPhone.

I remember that day, it was like Neal Armstrong had uttered that timeless phrase, “one giant step for mankind” all over again. “Oneness” had been achieved, not only with the single button — I could now have my phone, iPod, apps both useless and valuable, GPS, you name it, on a single device.

Apple stock soared to an unprecedented $200 a share and there was rejoicing among Apple enthusiasts. A whole new wave of Apple enthusiasts was created. What many people didn’t realize was that this was a huge success for the open source movement. One could argue that an open source project had never gotten this much attention in mainstream consumer electronics.

So, going back to the Gartner study referenced earlier in this article, why the 15 percent market share? Shouldn’t Apple have taken over the world?

Apple wants to sell you its hardware too. Remember the early days of the Mac versus Microsoft battle? The short version is that Apple wanted to sell you the OS and the hardware (how very “un” open source). Microsoft wanted to sell you the OS and let the hardware vendors sell the hardware. The result was Microsoft Windows having a huge chunk of the market and Apple having a small market share with an extremely zealous user base. Sound familiar?

So, is Apple nuts? Only if you consider market share to be everything. I think the stock prices and cash reserves speak for themselves. It’s just its way, and Apple has been hugely successful with it. It’s just one way open source enables success. Only time will tell if Apple can keep it going in the post Steve Jobs era.

Android, resistance is futile

Yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor and has nothing to do with Robert Frost. Technically, the Borg weren’t androids, they were cybernetic drones, or some would call them a consciousness. Now that’s more in line with Android.

Three years after Google purchased the company responsible for the Android OS, the first smartphone to run Android, the HTC Dream, hit the shelves. Obviously, Apple had already stolen the smartphone thunder so all the hoopla was much reduced. That’s not to say the impact wasn’t huge.

Since 2008, Motorola, HTC, Samsung, Nokia and plenty of others have released several pieces of pretty sweet hardware running the Android OS, which Google gives away. If you bothered to read that Gartner study I referenced, the little green Android has doubled its market share from the third quarter of 2010 to the third quarter of 2011 and dominates the mobile device market. And yes, I said Google gives it away.

How does Google make any money from something it gives away for free? Another thing about open source projects is that you can let someone else write the cool software (as long as you observe that little “give back” rule) and you can focus on your business strategy. The $5 billion Google made last year in advertising revenue as a result of releasing the Android OS is nothing to sneeze at. Not only that, the hardware manufacturers aren’t doing too bad either. Everybody is making money, and that’s good for all involved.

So there you have it — another win for open source. The common thread is that the tech companies can focus less on the tech and more on the business approach. The tech becomes a means to an end, rather than the end. Both approaches are successful, one is probably a little more selfish than the other.

Yeah, I’m talking to you, Apple.

As we go through the next several years and development standards become even more open, tech companies everywhere will need to reassess their business models. If open source is not part of their strategy, they may run the risk of becoming the next Selden Truck Sales Corp.

Hey, that plaid jacket looks good on you.

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