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18 March 2011, 09:37

How can open source survive in a post-PC World?

by Glyn Moody

We are entering a post-PC world – or so we are told. But is that good or bad for open source?

The open source world has been fixated so long on the “Year of the GNU/Linux Desktop” that it runs the risk of failing to notice that the desktop is no longer the key platform. That's been evident for some time in the developing world, where cost and power constraints mean that big, expensive PCs are simply impractical for most people. But with the rise of smartphones like the iPhone and Android devices, many people in western countries are also ditching their desk-bound systems in favour of powerful, more pocketable ones.

Alongside this trend, there is the new passion for tabs, which many are proclaiming as the coup de grâce for traditional PCs. The idea is that for most users – that is, those who do not need to work with huge spreadsheets or massive databases, say – a lightweight touchscreen tablet will become the default way of computing, whether at work, at home, or on the move.

That vision is debatable (here's some early research on the topic), but let's for the moment assume that we really are moving into a post-PC environment where smartphones and tablets are more common, and more important to most users, than traditional desktops and laptops. The question is then: how will open source fare in this brave new world?

On one side, it seems good news. The repeated failure of that “Year of the GNU/Linux Desktop” to materialise, and Microsoft's stubborn domination of the PC sector, means that the latter's decline is no great loss for the free software world. But before we break out the champagne to celebrate the fact that the wicked Windows witch is dying, it might be a good idea to look at how things are shaping up for open source in that post-PC world.

There's no doubt that Apple's iPhone triggered the current round of smartphone adoption largely because (a) you could actually do serious computing with it and (b) it was cool. OK, (b) may have been more important initially, but I think (a) is now another important reason why people buy iPhones – they see it as a way of having access to full computing power and data connectivity on the move.

But free software is not doing so well here either in theory, or in practice.

Maybe that's to be expected with a closed platform like iOS. So what about Android, which at least has open source underpinnings? There seem to be more open source apps around, but even here the number pales beside the hundreds of thousands of general apps that are available for the Android platform (even if most of them are pretty dire).

The tablet market is much younger than that for smartphones, but the first indications are not good: there seem to be barely any open source iPad apps, and I doubt whether the situation will improve once the Android tablets start arriving this year.

Matt Asay explains what the problem is:

if an app is close enough to free and immediately available, with the added benefit of potentially being higher quality than open-source alternatives (because of the paid investment in developing and polishing the app), will there be any reason to bother downloading an open-source app?

Freedom matters a great deal to some, but arguably not to the consumers flocking to Apple's devices. And perhaps not even to the bulk of developers writing for those consumers.

It goes without saying that this is extremely bad for free software, which risks being marginalised in what may well turn out to be a key facet of computing in the future. But it's also bad for users, too, since they end up with small black boxes of software – lots of them – running on their systems, about which they know very little. They don't really know what that code is doing, and in particular they don't know what personal data it is sending where. No wonder Richard Stallman hates mobile phones:

"It's Stalin's dream. Cell phones are tools of Big Brother. I'm not going to carry a tracking device that records where I go all the time, and I'm not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to eavesdrop."

As usual, he's right, but that doesn't help the majority of us that would really like to use a smartphone, or the billions who must, for want of anything more affordable. So what's to be done about the undeniable fact that people love the convenience of apps, but that open source alternatives are even less evident on these new platforms than they are on the desktop?

Next: Mozilla's answer?

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