Open source vs. Open Standards – complementing or competing?

I have been thinking of this idea for some time especially after the launch of Android/OHA – and a recent email from Curro Dominguez of Vodafone Betavine R and D who attended my IMS course at Oxford university prompted this blog.

I seek thoughts on this – and admittedly I may not have got everything right here. Note also that this article/blog is specific to the mobile domain – however similar principles may apply to the Web as well.

So .. Here we go ..

Interoperability and standards

In any consumer based service, we need interoperable standards for the market to blossom

There are three ways to do enable interoperability – the first is by a monopoly i.e.. A single standard controlled by one company. The second is via open standards and standardization bodies and the third(which I find most interesting) is via open source

The open standards process is now well known. For instance, W3C is a standardization body and its process is outlined HERE

As with any standardization body, it comprises submissions, committees, consensus, working groups, draft proposals – so on and so forth.

The result is – all standards from any standardization body have three problems:

a) They are slow i.e. they take a long time to materialise

b) They are ‘standard’ i.e. they leave little room for differentiation

c) Even when there is some effort towards standardization/consensus, there is no guarantee that the market will not fragment(such as in the case of J2ME)

Besides this, there are other problems – for instance -

a) Some companies actually thrive on fragmentation(transcoding companies/testing companies etc) and on the flip side – there are business models built around standardization by standardization entities themselves (for example testing, compliance mark, certification, training etc)

b) IPR management is also an issue

c) Finally, many companies support standards retrospectively. This means they are ‘compliant’ but only later when it makes little difference anyway.

The result is a slow, imperfect process, which does not always work. However, the options are much worse .. Essentially a commercial monopoly

Open source

Can Open source offer a third way forward?

It appears to be a road which companies are increasingly taking – especially with Android/OHA.

Firstly, for the sake of this discussion, let us differentiate between Open standards, Open systems and Open source

We have already discussed Open standards above – i.e. standards which are consensus driven and created by a consortium of companies with some form of community/committee process

Open systems is a term where users are not restricted by any commercial or technological means i.e. no walled gardens. The meaning of ‘open’ in this case is dependent on context. Recently, facebook opened up it’s APIs to third parties. In that sense, facebook is ‘open’. However, within facebook itself, you cannot contact any user without an introduction(unlike in MySpace). So, in that case, facebook is ‘closed’. Hence the meaning that : open = users should not be restricted by any commercial or technological means – is generally valid

Which brings us to ‘Open source’. For once, the Wikipedia article on Open source is not very clear. Hence, I am using a very simple, concise viewpoint to explain this, rather emotive for some people, term

Open source software is managed and promoted through an organization called Open Source Initiative -which maintains an OSI definition and endorses a set of Open source licenses which comply with the OSI definition.

All this is simple enough. However, the term ‘Open source’ was created to distinguish from another term called ‘Free software’ coined by the free software foundation. .

The principal philosophical difference between the free software foundation and the open source movement lies in ‘what to do with derived works’ also called Copyleft . The free software foundation believes that derived works should also be covered by the same terms as the licence(copyleft). In other words, if you modify software under the FSF licence, then the derived work must also be released back into the community.

In contrast, depending on which license you adopt from the open source foundation, derived works need not be released back to the community(there is a secondary question of what constitutes a derived work – but we will leave that aside for the moment). Specifically, the Apache licence v 2.0 covered under Opensource is not copyleft. In other words, any derivatives need not be released back into the community (thereby preserving IP rights of the person modifying it).

There are philosophical debates about this (and one can argue that the copyleft principle is more viral – see wikipedia link on copyleft above)– but the counter argument is that – companies will want to preserve their modifications for commercial reasons and there will be no commercial incentives for people if you force them to also release any derived works.

Of course, none of the open source (and for that matter the free software) licenses mandate ‘commercially free’ i.e. you are free to charge people (or not) for the software and derivatives.

Open source and Interoperability

Open source conjures up images of pony tailed geeks writing Linux code .. but there is another class of contributors enabling the rise of open source.


Why would companies want to contribute code under open source?

To facilitate interoperability and to grow the market.

In addition, unlike standardization which is top down, complex and committee driven : Open source initiatives are grassroots, simple and needs based since they are often solutions to specific problems. This makes the whole process simple and quick with unviable initiatives cut down at the source.

The biggest proponent of Open source in recent times is Google – with Android. The Android user space software is released under Apache version 2.0.This provides a commercial incentive for companies to develop modifications in the application space. See this fantastic post on why Google chose the apache license over GPL v2 for a detailed discussion on this topic.

Of course we have to reiterate that open source is not always better than standardization and ultimately I expect that the two will coexist. But certainly, it is a space to watch.

Others have spotted the same trend.

For instance,

Readwerite web correctly (in my view) identifies open source as the most promising trend of 2008 but wrongly(again in my view) mixes the three terms Open source, Open systems and open standards(for example the Opera lawsuit is not about Open source – it is about open standards since Opera itself is not open source as I understand it)

Vodafone betavine

Finally, we come to the email from Curro Dominguez of Vodafone who works with Vodafone betavine

I have blogged about betavine before and people like Dan Appelquist and Stephen Wolak who work with it are very clued on guys – so I am watching betavine with interest

Hence, I was interested when Curro told me about MobileScript which is an ECMA script that allows developers to access device functionality (calls, messages) in a simple manner.

It’s also one of the first projects to be released as Open Source (GPL v2)

See this YouTube video

As Vodafone are doing (correctly in my view), I see this to be an increasing trend – and it will be beneficial since companies will address specific problems, they will court developers, Android/OHA will provide legitimacy to the whole area and we will balance the objectives of fast development cycles, interoperability and with no monopolies

Also, I wish to acknowledge the thinking from Andreas of visionmobile which I have used to clarify some of my own questions in understanding Open source.

Any comments welcome

Related blogs coming soon:

The Blu Ray debate about openness

The iPhone debate about openness

The future is bright .. The future is 3 ..


Meg Whitman, who runs eBay, calls 3′s X-Series a “key milestone” in the development of the internet.

Until now, says Niklas Zennstrom, the chief executive and co-founder of Skype, “we thought 3G was not real broadband, but it has now arrived”.

“Moving to flat rate charging is the key to unlocking the value of the mobile internet,” says Miles Flint, the president of Sony Ericsson.

(Source for all three quotes above: BBC)

They are all referring to the announcement by Hutchison 3 announcing a fixed rate pricing and an OpenGardens strategy

Many other respected bloggers like Dean Bubley and David Cushman also concur that it is this is the single most significant digital development in recent times

I agree .. Here are my views on why that’s the case ..

Having written a book called OpenGardens and then Mobile Web 2.0 , 3’ s walled gardens represented the ultimate manifestation of all that is wrong in our industry.

For more than a year now, I have had two phones: A Vodafone Blackberry and a ‘3’ Nokia phone. The ‘3’ phone was mainly for voice(they have some of the best voice plans).

I also wanted to experience first hand, what it felt like living in a walled garden through the 3 connection.

I would often remark that within my lifetime, the ‘3’ service would not change(sarcastically adding that I had to worry about ‘3’s lifetime more than my own!)

All that changed last week with the announcement that ‘3’ is adopting a diagrammatically opposite strategy to that they have pursued so far : i.e. they are adopting OpenGardens and fixed rate pricing

Although the exact pricing is not announced, the strategic direction is more important.

It will lead to other operators announcing similar pricing and thus a virtuous cycle for the industry.

Coming so close to Christmas(and consequently handset upgrade cycles), other Operators may well have been caught on the wrong foot.

For years, the Mobile Data Industry wanted Web valuations without embracing the ethos of the Web.

And everything was done to show how ‘Mobile Data’ is different

We tried Location

We tried talking of ‘performance’.

We tried ‘User experience’.

We tried ‘content’ and also ‘relevance’

Most of all, we tried ‘walled gardens’ and we avoided fixed rate billing

Walled Gardens and the lack of Fixed price billing were the two biggest factors throttling the uptake of the Mobile Data Industry

Because ..

If the other factors above are critical .. then how do we explain SMS?

Think about it ..

SMS breaks every rule in the book.

Interface – what interface?

Performance – Is NOT guaranteed .. (you send an SMS – no guarantee that it will reach recipient and when)

And so on ..

Thus, all other factors are necessary but not sufficient to create a vibrant industry(as the experience of SMS so aptly demonstrates)

But SMS has three things going for it ..

a) It was P2P and it was based on ‘User generated content’

b) It had a revenue model through Premium SMS and also in itself (at least in Europe)

c) It had critical mass and interoperability(again mainly in Europe and Asia)

Ironically, the entire industry benefited from the uptake of SMS.

We don’t worry about ‘Operator pipes’ when it comes to SMS (because it is mostly P2P communication i.e. there is no unpipe as I said in a previous post )

That’s why I am so bullish about the ‘3’ announcement

Both OpenGardens and Fixed price billing lead to a healthier value chain(for all players including Operators)

Any operator who takes up this strategy deserves higher market valuations because they are aligning themselves to the ethos of the Web.

I expect that this will also translate into greater customer uptake, move data usage, greater ad revenues etc. All of which will create a virtuous cycle for 3 and also the industry as a whole.

Two other points are worth noting

a) Fixed rate billing will lead to a whole set of new applications such as Mobile podcasting(which are currently not commercially feasible now). This will boost innovation at the grassroots level in contrast with the ‘song and dance’ applications we see proliferating today. I have nothing against Ringtones, Wallpapers and other forms of ‘Broadcast content’ as Howard Rheingold calls it, but these applications primarily benefit the big media players, Operators and some large aggregators. They belittle the true potential of the Mobile Data industry and they provide no incentive for the grassroots developers. All that changes when fixed rate pricing and OpenGardens become the norm.

b) While not immediately apparent, there are two revenue models for ‘3’ – first is the data charges but also there is advertising as the BBC says : The proposed flat rate may pay some of 3′s networks costs, but the real business model is advertising.

That’s where Mobile Web 2.0 comes in .. i.e. ad supported business models on Mobile devices will mirror the uptake of Web 2.0 applications.

The importance of the resurgent advertising model in laying the foundations of Web 2.0(and by extension Mobile Web 2.0 ) is shown by Jason Calacanis in a fascinating blog The real story of Web 2.0: Advertising 2.0 where he says

The real story of Web 2.0 has little to do with the bells and whistles and everything to do with the stunning growth of online advertising.

And also

How far will this trend line go? Think 20 more years of similar growth.

Will it(rate of growth) get steeper? Absolutely.

To conclude ..

As a blogger with a mission of fostering grassroots innovation, healthier value chains and greater uptake of the Mobile data industry: I say ..

The future is bright .. the future is 3.

What is the history behind the perplexed Leonardo image?


I have used the image of the ‘Leonardo in the walled garden’ for this blog from its inception.

The perplexed Leonardo in a walled garden – symbolizes everything this blog is all about

Originally, the image was meant to be used on the cover of my first book OpenGardens, but for various reasons, we did not end up using it

The Leonardo represents garage/grassroots developers i.e. the people who have the talent and the courage to create new vistas (applications). However, the Mobile data industry, as I understood it then, (and to a large extent even now) .. is not an optimal place for the innovator due to its fragmented, proprietary standards and walled gardens approach.

Hence, the perplexed Leonardo .. painting his Mona Lisa within the confines of a walled garden.

On a more serious note, that’s the reason why this blog advocates open standards, non proprietary technologies and the ethos of the web(and will continue to do so!).

It has been a lonely voice for a while but today as we see greater amalgamation between the web and the mobile web, I look forward to the day when I think up of a new cartoon.

The image was drawn up by the talented Amanda Vlahakis who captured just the sentiments in my mind through this lovely animation

another brick off the walled garden ..


from Ovum my comments below.

11:45 3 UK: another brick off the walled garden

Dario Betti

Mobile operator 3 UK is to give its subscribers mobile access to the Internet outside of its own ‘walled garden’ of products for the first time this month. From the end of September, 3 users will be able to pay £2.50 per month to download up to 5Mb of data from the Internet. However, access will still be restricted to sites that 3 has deemed “optimised for viewing on compatible video mobiles”.

Comment: In 2003, at the time of launch, 3 had a very different strategy. It saw itself as a media company and wanted to be in complete control of what was on offer to its users. After its false start, 3 has re-focused its business more on voice tariffs and less on media services. Opening up the so-called walled garden is a necessary step: no single operator, even a large one, can offer the range of services that users might want. Also, it is good to offload some of the risk for new applications onto publishers. As long as the operator can charge for traffic and for billing, its business model is sound.

The service does not yet offer a complete web browsing experience. 3 only allows certain sites to be accessed on its handsets. The threat of bad user experience is very high: navigating the Internet on a mobile phone can be frustrating. We think that 3 is restricting access more to protect its users than to shield its own service line up. The operator says it will make 'hundreds' of such sites available in the coming months, and is offering users a chance to nominate those that they want to be made available.

However, 3 is not knocking down its walled garden, although it is taking one further step towards it. This is an add-on, paid-for service; only keen users will be attracted to it. The problem is how to charge for access to the worldwide web/WAP. In a prepaid dominated market, it should look at offering this in other packages and not just as a subscription. After all, other operators are already opening their portals or offering web browsing options. T-Mobile is counting on its 'web and walk' offer, O2 will launch the open garden i-Mode service, and Vodafone Live! intends to open up its off-portal access even more. This is an area to watch. Expect plenty of talk about walled gardens, open gardens and parks in 2006.

In many ways, 3 epitomises the walled gardens concept. While it seems to be getting some benefits commercially, like AOL, long term it will not work out. AOL, at least had access to exclusive content through the time Warner deal. 3 may need some such suitor. Even then, AOL was forced to open up and I predict so will 3. As the comments from Dario(ovum) below show – 3 is still way off from all the other operators and it’s just a matter of time before the walls break down completely

emailed to me by my good friend Lore Ridings of Prasada

Image courtesy : Pink floyd – the wall – a complete analysisA fascinating site – well worth a visit