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Mapping open source into mobile: who, where and how

Dec 3, 2008 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Foreword — Open source has flourished in the mobile phone market this year, says Andreas Constantinou. In this paper, the VisionMobile research director discusses the emergence of Android, Symbian Foundation, Maemo, Qt Software, Purple Labs, ALP, Wind River, WebKit, Funambol, and a dozen other mobile open source projects and companies.

The paper was originally posted on VisonMobile's blog, here, and is reproduced here with permission.

Mapping open source into mobile: who, where and how
by Andreas Constantinou

Without a doubt, 2008 has been the year where open source has transitioned from a status of early adoption to one of acceptance and endorsement by the mobile industry's who's who as a recipe for collaborative software development.

The Android launch, the Symbian acquisition and open source roadmap, Intel's Moblin 2.0 and OpenedHand acquisition, Nokia's adoption of WebKit as a feature of the S40 platform, the Trolltech acquisition and incorporation of Qt on S60, Purple Labs acquisition of Openwave and Sagem assets, AOL's Open Mobile Platform… it seems that in the space of just one year open source has transitioned all of a sudden from geekware for Linux enthusiasts to a successful commercial alternative to closed-door standards. Moving forward, 2009 will be the year of maturity for how open source can be used as a tool for cheaper, faster, collaborative software development, which reduces barriers to entry and breeds innovation.

Yet, rarely do analysts, bloggers, or media cover the big picture of open source use in mobile. In other words, who is using open source, where are they using it, and under what terms (i.e. the license and governance terms)? Here I'll attempt to do just that, painting the big picture of mobile open source against three dimensions: the who, the where, and the what.

1. The Who's Who

Who is who in mobile open source? The following table provides a near-complete list of who's who, from operating systems to development tools and industry initiatives. Naturally, the table excludes the hundreds of smaller open source software projects that have been used in some capacity in one phone or other.

Linux support packages Wind River (also one of the most prominent integrators for mobile Linux stacks), MontaVista
Operating systems for feature phones: Purple Labs; for smartphones: Azingo, Access Linux Platform, A la Mobile, OpenMoko; for MIDs: Intel Moblin, Ubuntu Mobile
Middleware GNOME's GTK+ and related projects (e.g. D-Bus, Gstreamer), and the graphics subsystem of Nokia's Qt
Application environments Google's Android, Nokia's Maemo, Nokia's Qt, Eclipse eRCP, Sun's Java phone ME, Motorola's Java MIDP3, AOL's Open Mobile Platform and Nokia's Web Runtime
Browsers Apple's WebKit (on the verge of becoming a de facto standard for web-centric service delivery) and Firefox Mobile
Service deliv. platforms Funambol (consumer email sync), Volantis (content adaptation)
Development tools Eclipse Foundation (manages the Eclipse IDE, used as the basis for Nokia's Carbide, Wind River tools and many others).
Industry initiatives Symbian Foundation (EPL license), Open Handset Alliance (APL2 license), LiMo Foundation (open source as it builds on top of Linux), GNOME Mobile and Embedded (LGPL-licensed GTK+ and related software)

Table: who's who in mobile open source

There are also a couple of initiatives which are associated with 'openness' but are not related to open source. Microsoft Shared Source is a complex array of tens of different licenses involving access to source code for Microsoft software, only two of which have been approved by the Open Source Initiative, the gatekeeper of open source license compliance. And, there is the Adobe Open Screen Project, which does not employ open source licensing at all.

2. The Where

Where is open source software used in mobile phones? The following table provides a 10,000 foot view of where open source licensed software is used within a mobile phone, from the kernel to applications. The rule of thumb is that the lower you go towards the base of the software stack, the more open source software you're likely to find.

Kernel + base oper. system In a Linux-based OS, 90% of the kernel and base OS (drivers, base services) is community-sourced and unmodified, while 10% is community sourced and modified. The drivers for the modem stack are always closed source.
Middleware Where GTK+ is used (e.g. traditionally NEC and Panasonic phones), about 30% of the middleware stack is open source licensed based on the GNOME family of multimedia middleware (e.g. Gstreamer, D-Bus)
Application environments The percentage of open source software ranges from 100% in the case of Android and OpenMoko to 0% in the vast majority of feature phones where a proprietary Java ME engine is used.
Applications Applications are nearly 100% closed source, with the exception where WebKit is used as the browser.

Table: where is open source used in mobile phone software

Open source licensing is also used in server software, most notably in Funambol's email synchronization server and Volantis's Mobility Server, a device identification and content adaptation framework. Network infrastructure vendors like Nokia Siemens sell Linux-based boxes and software, but that doesn't really imply an open source product.

3. The How

How is open source used in mobile? In other words, what are the licenses and the governance models employed in open source projects?

Several major mobile open source projects use a weak copyleft license (e.g. EPL, LGPL or MPL). Generally speaking, weak copyleft licenses carry some obligations for publishing source code modifications if distributed, but clauses around derivatives are less strict, so they can be used with proprietary software. The APL2 (non-copyleft) license is also popular — it is used in Google's Android, Motorola's planned MIDP3 release, and AOL's Open Mobile Platform. Note how the GPL license, by far the most popular license in PC and Internet OSS projects, is rarely used in mobile. This is one of the reasons for the zero adoption of Sun's Java phone ME by handset OEMs and the same reason why Qt will have to be re-licensed under a more permissive license if Nokia wants to see it adopted by other handset OEMs.

Governance models vary widely; from Funambol's moderator-based incorporation of contributions, to a single-company control over contributions, as is the case with Apple's popular WebKit browser core. There's lots more parameters to a governance model — particularly control over the release schedule, membership-only access, membership fees and IP ownership, but this a lengthy topic that deserves a separate discussion.

The next table summarizes the license type and governance model (how contributions are managed) for popular mobile open source projects (see also earlier article on community dynamics).

Comparing licenses vs governance models
Figure: comparing community governance models and licenses for popular OSS projects
(Click to enlarge)

Here it's worth shedding some light over a common misperception: an open source license does not imply a zero licensing cost. For example, many Linux-based OS vendors like Wind River, Azingo, and Purple Labs are charging per-unit royalties for the software.

As another example, the Symbian Foundation has vowed to release Symbian OS code under an EPL license, while members of the Foundation will have access to source code under a zero royalty license, for a flat membership fee of $1,500 per year. However the Symbian Foundation hasn't publicized the fees members will have to pay for shipping handsets with the Symbian Foundation code. If the Foundation is to support its sub-500 staff (numbers according to Lee Williams), then the effective license fees should be in the region of millions of dollars per year per member.

Comments welcome as always, and can be left in the original post of this story.

About the author:Andreas Constantinou is Research Director of VisionMobile Ltd. He has nine years experience in research, development, and strategy in the wireless market, and specializes in providing intelligence on the mobile vendor landscape and analyzing market dynamics. Constantinou holds a Ph.D. in Image & Video Compression from the University of Bristol, U.K.

VisionMobile describes itself as “a market analysis and strategic advisory firm in the wireless sector, offering research, workshops, and advisory services on under-the-radar market sectors and emerging technologies.” One of its offerings, a 360 degree workshop, is described as a “one-day deep-dive into everything and anything that is mobile open source, from economics and business models to license best practices, software management guidelines, and 20+ case studies of real world lessons from open source use in the mobile industry.”

This article was originally published on and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

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