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14 March 2012, 17:01

A golden age of open source innovation?

by Glyn Moody

Open source's ability to innovate has been challenged many times. But Glyn Moody argues that open source innovation is actually going from strength to strength, creating new opportunities to deliver cheap computing to people corporations would not normally consider.

One of the most persistent criticisms of open source is that it is not innovative, but is simply a re-working of other people's ideas. Here's a famous statement of that view by Microsoft's Jim Allchin from the first Halloween Document

When describing this problem to JimAll, he provided the perfect analogy of "chasing tail lights". The easiest way to get coordinated behavior from a large, semi-organized mob is to point them at a known target. Having the taillights provides concreteness to a fuzzy vision. In such situations, having a taillight to follow is a proxy for having strong central leadership.

That was back in 1998, but things weren't much better in 2006, when The Economist wrote a long feature about open source and its "limitations":

The first [doubt about open source's staying power] is how innovative it can remain in the long run. Indeed, open source might already have reached a self-limiting state, says Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of “The Success of Open Source” (Harvard University Press, 2004). “Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply – but can it do anything new? Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge,” he says.

So, six years later, how's that lack of staying power working out? Well, I would like to suggest that we are living in a golden age of open source innovation, with many of the most exciting computing ideas – especially for the future – being explored through free software. Here are a few recent examples, all of which have drawn considerable interest from the wider computing community and industry.

Mozilla recently announced its Open Web Device platform, in conjunction with the mobile carrier Telefónica Digital:

Telefónica Digital and Mozilla today unveiled an ambitious strategy to create a new mobile platform that will deliver the first HTML5 based devices running on the open Web. The Open Web Devices platform (OWD), which will launch in 2012, is an important step forward in the establishment of HTML5 as the next major ecosystem for smartphones, and will enable the delivery of smartphone capabilities at low price points.

Telefónica Digital’s product development and innovation team has worked closely together with Mozilla, the pioneers of open Web standards, to create a new phone architecture that relies entirely on the Web, enabling HTML5 applications with absolute access to core phone APIs. This means that all of the device’s capabilities (calling, messaging, browsing, games etc) can be developed as HTML5 applications and executed via an experience based on the Firefox Web browser.

As that makes clear, the Open Web Device platform is a continuation of recent work on preserving the open web in the face of the iPhone and Android platforms, and the rise of proprietary apps running on them. At the heart of the Open Web Device is Mozilla's Boot to Gecko project:

Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko Project unlocks the current limitations of Web development for mobile by providing new features and APIs that will demonstrate just how powerful HTML5 can be and that it is possible to run an entire device using this technology. In doing so it is possible to remove much of the middleware and other superfluous software on a device which not only makes the applications run faster, but also brings down the device unit cost.

Because of this initiative’s commitment to openness, this reference implementation will be submitted for standardization to W3C. The objective is that there are no proprietary APIs within the device architecture, making phones developed using it the only truly open devices on the market.

That unswerving commitment to openness is not something that Apple or even Google can match; both of those, ultimately, are interested in creating ecosystems that they control (albeit more loosely in the case of Android). Mozilla, by contrast, is continuing its work to push openness down the stack – from Firefox to Boot to Gecko to the Open Web Device.

Now, it could be argued that this is a solution in search of a problem, and that few outside Telefónica Digital will adopt the platform: that remains to be seen. But it is inarguable that Mozilla is doing something innovative here – seeking to create a more open mobile stack. It is most certainly not "chasing tail lights" in Allchin's memorable phrase.

Mozilla's work is important because it is by now clear that in the future the core computing platform will be the smartphone, not the desktop. That's in part because billions of new users in emerging countries cannot afford a full desktop system – or may not have the necessary power and fixed-line internet infrastructure available locally.

Next: Mobile on the desktop

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