Who's to blame when products fail?

Follow the Money

Article from Issue 167/2014

"maddog" takes exception to attempts to blame Open Source for some recent product failures.

Recently a major publication house published an article about how the Tizen smartphone "flopped – and open source is to blame" [1]. If you did read the article, however, you found that even the author did not really believe open source was "to blame." The author blamed the companies behind the projects for a lack of commitment to the use of Open Source, which created a lack of follow-through and (given the number of alternative closed and partially open operating systems they could use) the final use of either Android or Microsoft instead. Of course, this headline particularly infuriated me because even iOS is based on FreeBSD, and both Android and Firefox OS use kernels "based on" Linux. So, "Open Source Failed"?

Developing a world-class operating system and development tool chain is not easy, folks! And, it is particularly difficult when various manufacturers are not "open" about their hardware, creating binary blobs of firmware or device drivers that often require non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) for developers to sign even before they see the documentation.

The article mentioned other Open Source solutions, such as Maemo, and pointed out how Open Source had failed the telephony market. I used Maemo on the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. Given the time period, the hardware that was available, and everything else, it was a great "phone" – except, it did not have a cellular modem. Was this the fault of the Open Source community, or was it more the whim of a company that should have been able to put a cellular modem into an "Internet Tablet"?

Later, Nokia Internet Tablets (and eventually full phones) kept shifting the OS  – from Maemo to MeeGo  – with disruptions to the engineering staff, creating fear, uncertainty, and doubt about their own phone's future. Please, do not blame Open Source for this.

Open Source has already proven its ability to deliver large, complex pieces of software without a company behind it. The Debian distribution of GNU/Linux, for example, delivers tens of thousands of packages of software and (in my humble opinion) is incredibly stable. Millions of people around the planet download Debian for their workstations, laptops, servers, and embedded systems.

Phones have a different path in life. Most phones are purchased through a carrier, a company that does not want to deal with all the issues of a phone and its underlying software. At most, the carrier wants to put its small software application on the phone. Otherwise, it would have to deal with issues such as radio frequency testing, codex royalty payments, quality control, and so on. This is not what carriers want to do; they just want to sell phones and (more importantly) the services behind them.

Even most handset manufacturers do not want to deal with operating system development. They want an operating system (and hopefully a full application suite) that is ready to go for their specific hardware platform. At most, they only want to write a few device drivers (often contracting out this unpleasant task to other companies) and port their own "skin" of upper level code and branding code to the underlying operating system. Such companies deal mainly with lawyers, contracts, and warranties, rather than Open Source development.

The article also pointed at the failed Indigogo program for the Ubuntu Edge phone and claimed this was another failure of Open Source. I do not think the Edge was a failure. I put my money down to buy one of those phones and was looking forward to it. That Indigogo program raised the most money of any Indigogo project up to that time, but it still failed to reach its goals. To me, that was simply an issue of market size and investment needed to bring out a project of that size and scope. I believe that soon there will be more "commodity" phones in the marketplace capable of running the Ubuntu operating system well, and then Ubuntu on a phone will become more commonplace.

The fault is not with the Open Source Community but with vendors that do not put their faith and money behind Open Source. Open Source is patient, however, and we will win.


  1. "The Tizen smartphone flopped – and open source is to blame" by Galen Gruman, InfoWorld: http://www.infoworld.com/d/mobile-technology/the-tizen-smartphone-flopped-and-open-source-blame-247144

The Author

Jon "maddog" Hall is an author, educator, computer scientist, and free software pioneer who has been a passionate advocate for Linux since 1994 when he first met Linus Torvalds and facilitated the port of Linux to a 64-bit system. He serves as president of Linux International®.

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