Donnerstag, 8. November 2012

How the Open Source movement won the battle, but lost the war

there is a saying in German: Don't wish anything, it might come true, but completely different as you want it. This is very true now for the open source movement. Let's take a look around.

Linux is probably the most widely used operating system in the world, if we count all embedded systems, like wifi-routers, smartphones, tablets, GPS-receiver, smart-TVs and other devices most people do not actually know, that these are powered by Linux. Regarding Android I think I can claim that the moment is not too far away when Android will become the most widespread operation system for devices, which we call computers and leave Windows behind, maybe this moment is already there. So this is undoubtedly a success for the open source community that an open source kernel is powering so many devices in the world. But on the other hand, yes Android is open, you can browse the source code, but can you really contribute? As a private person, where can I check-in my fixes and code suggestions? Who are the code maintainers and integrators? Where are all the Android distributions like we used to have with Linux? Sure, it is possible to hack the device and flash the ROMs with new software, but compared with the millions of people, who are using Android, how many people are using custom ROM software? It stays a small community.

The second battle is related. Open Source community always insisted that the used should have full control over his/her hardware and install the operation system he/she likes. Well, in PC-world we are at this point. Installing different system on a regular PC is dead-simple, but try it on a phone or a tablet! Sure it is possible to install Android-system on an iPhone, but again, this is really cumbersome process only for very few of us. Also the number of open source OSes for mobile devices is very low compared with the number of open source OSes available for PC. Hopefully this is just matter of time.

Software should be free. Well, we are close to this point. 90% of software in Android store is free. But it is free as in beer, because there are hardly apps, which source code is published somewhere. At least with Android it is possible to install software without using the official store, so using open source software is easier, but again hardly any app developer is open-sourcing the app. It would be an interesting idea to have an app store, where only apps are published, which source code can be downloaded somewhere.

Lot of apps have access to the cloud. Also we use lot of cloud services with the web-browser. Cloud infrastructure is based on open-source components, like Linux, Apache, some middleware server, open-source database. This is great. But what about all the application logic? Again, there is hardly open source available of all these cloud-based applications. But we provide lot of our most private and sensible data into the cloud. Google claims that there are more than 1 mio Android devices activations per day, that means most of these users are sending their address books, with all private phone numbers, addresses, photos and so on to Google and they trust that Google will not misuse the data (here even open-source will not help), but also that the application software is that secure that no hacker can get access to the cloud and have the most accurate address-book in the world! One of the reasons, why open source is so important is because lot of specialists are able to verify the code and find weaknesses. Another problem with the cloud is that the user basically looses control (and sometimes ownership) over his data and has to trust the cloud provider. This is certainly not the idea of organisations and activists, which engage in open source movement.

So it looks like the open source movement won some battles. Open source is everywhere, PCs are open for installation of large variety of open source OSes, with modern UIs open source software is user-friendly and polished, on mobile devices Android is the most widely used operating system. Clouds and Internet are not imaginable without infrastructure provided by open-source applications. But on the other hand most of the modern developments in the IT-world like apps, smartphones, tablets, browser-apps with logic on a server in the cloud are powered by open source, but are not open source themselves. Developer do not publish the source of their software and the choice which software is running on my device is greatly reduced. So open-source community should think about the strategies how to adapt to the new environment.

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