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24 February 2012, 12:53

Can open source save RIM?

by Mary Branscombe

Don't expect RIM to open source its entire operating system, or its radio stack. But the original smartphone company is gambling its future success on open source, and it has an expert on board to help. Mary Branscombe asked Senior Technical Director for Open Software, Eduardo Pelegri Llopart, where open source fits in at RIM.

RIM isn't a company you naturally associate with open source. It licenses Java from Oracle, has a proprietary operating system and server software, has fought its way through several patent trials and is famously secretive about the way it runs the BlackBerry infrastructure. But many of the companies Research In Motion has acquired over the last few years, such as Torch and TaT, have been heavily involved in open source. The Torch browser RIM built into BlackBerry 6 (and named its touchscreen handset after) is based on WebKit, and both the PlayBook OS and the future BlackBerry 10 operating system include many open source frameworks. WebKit HTML5 is its strategy for bringing BlackBerry Java developers to the new platform. Now RIM is starting to contribute to open source projects, both for tools and frameworks, and to get more involved with the community.

Eduardo Pelegri Llopart
Eduardo Pelegri Llopart
Pelegri Llopart is something of an open source veteran. In twenty years at Sun he was involved in XEmacs and LGPL, Apache Tomcat, Hudson and GlassFish. His view of open source as "a great tool; let's use that among other tools" reflects RIM's strategic approach to using – and contributing to – open source. It's all about pragmatism.

"The way to look at open source at RIM is unlike Sun where Jonathan Schwartz said 'we're doing open source for everything', at RIM it's more 'in this case it's open source, in this case no, in this case – well, maybe at some point'."

That pragmatic approach often means concentrating more on getting code out and less on formal processes and governance which, perhaps controversially, he sees as secondary. "Sun did a number of things really well but there were slightly different practices in various groups. For example, the OpenSolaris group. The GlassFish application server was one of my projects; we took a much more pragmatic approach to how to do things, and open source worked extremely well for GlassFish. OpenSolaris, in my humble opinion, spent a bit too much time working on governance as opposed to refining the governance as products were created, and that caused problems for them."

"The way we are doing it at RIM is like that [pragmatic approach]. The way Jonathan Schwartz was doing it at Sun; I think it was intended to be like that but because of trying to simplify the story too much – well, this is a different story."

Starting with samples

Blackberry on GitHub
Zoom Blackberry on GitHub

RIM has what he refers to as a "significant number of repositories at github", though many are code samples.

"All our sample code is open source now. It used to be 'well, some of it was in documents here and there that people had to copy and paste code from, and some of it was in complicated cumbersome licences in development kits that nobody understood...' Now we're trying to use an Apache licence for everything, we're trying to put everything in github, so that if there is a new code sample we can add it to github, as opposed to having to update a development kit. I wouldn't say everyone has bought into it, I haven't done a tally; but I think all the groups are doing it."

Tools for BlackBerry developers are next on the agenda, although so far it's only the WebWorks development tools and the Ripple emulator. "I expect that pretty much all the tools, editors and things like that, will end up being open source. Right now what we have is the HTML5 tools, but then we're using Eclipse for our tooling; so plugins for Eclipse, that's a conversation that's still going on."

"There is no benefit to RIM in keeping those [tools] closed, there is benefit in actually having them open source. For the HTML5 stack; the expectation of the community and in the market is that stack is open source. The lower layers are WebKit, the middle layers are WebWorks and Apache Cordova, then additional frameworks we can put on top of that. There is no benefit to us in keeping that closed source so we are doing open source."

Next: Contribution culture

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