Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Open source and its consequences

People with no insight into what open source means and what consequences it has for systems, come up with all sorts of weird ideas. Nokia's buy of Symbian and its plans to open its source code have made people ask the same old questions once again. Some are enthusiastic, some are worried. Let's have a look at a few misconceptions.

Does open sourcing Symbian mean that there will be a problem with backwards compatibility? The misconception here is that when you release something as open source, there's nothing you can do about millions of open source hackers all over the world taking charge of your product. But as maintainer of the code, you decide on what gets merged. Sure, people might fork the code and run off in any direction with it, but which version of the code do you think the OEMs will use? Its them who are crazy about backwards compatibility, so they'll go with the official version from the Symbian Foundation.

The above point is also related to the assumption that people will actually want to work on the Symbian code. The problem with this is that a product has to be attractive to programmers, and Symbian is anything but. That's the reason why there are almost no people writing Symbian code in their free time now. It's horrible. You don't spend your spare time working on something horrible, unless you dig horrible stuff. Most people don't.

Does open source Symbian mean that anyone can do whatever they want with their phones, like install patches that switch off platform security or open it up to all sorts of software that their friendly operator don't want them to run? No, obviously not. An open software system doesn't mean that the phones are open. There are lots of Linux phones out there already, and there's not much you can do with them. The fact that you have the source code for Linux doesn't mean that you have any power over your locked down Linux phone from Motorola.

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