Friday, June 13, 2008

The Next Frontier for Open Source

Open Source is still a disruptive idea. It has moved beyond that in server operating systems, of course, with Linux on 20% of servers shipped these days. That’s known as being “mainstream.”

But the effects of open source development and business models continue to be heavily disruptive as they spread into new technology markets. Disruption often benefits consumers directly.

Cell phones are the next device that will move to open standards. Whether the big providers like it or not.

Can you remember doing business before there were cell phones? Neither can I. It’s one of those technologies that became truly indispensable. (link) Indispensable but not invincible. Quality of service is somewhere near early-adopter stage even after over 15 years of mass adoption. Intentionally obtuse billing. And from a technology standpoint, there’s vendor lock-in, monopolistic advantages, and a resistance to new disruptive technologies. Still, being able to do a phone call from virtually anywhere is extremely valuable, so the consumers put up with a lot.

If you can do phone calls from anywhere you should be able to do computing from anywhere. Reading email, browsing the web… you’ve become dependent on those apps at your desk. In the rest of the world, you’re used to it on your phone now, too. (link) In the US, the cell phone carriers and manufactures misguided attempt to control everything has left consumers short and arguably not served their shareholders as well.

Open source is about to hit the cell phone industry hard. It may even take with it one of the early darlings of US smart phones — a halfway station to open cell phone technology — the iPhone. Apple will be announcing the results of opening up the iPhone to third party developers next week at Apple’s WWDC 08. But the iPhone SDK is accessible only to existing Mac developers. That’s not open enough. ABI Research is estimating that somewhere near one quarter of the world’s smartphones will be Linux-based in 5 years. (link) This is the iPhone’s real competition: Linux.

Where Linux goes, the consumer wins.

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