Android in 2013: Open Source

Having a Green Vision of Android's Future

This post wraps up the Android in 2013 series, covering where Android's possible future. This last segment focuses on open source, the spark of much interest at Android's public outset and the cause of much angst in the years since.

Much of that angst is because Android has used the “toss the bits over the wall” approach to open source, more so than true public collaboration. In 2013, this will not have changed — there will still be private repositories. Effectively, Google is going “open source in license only” to provide the strategic value of zero-cost device OS. Google, or its partners, will still want some amount of maskirovka for competitive reasons, just as Apple does not disclose all features of a new OS release until it is released.

True open source collaboration will be incrementally better by 2013, however. While I expect the main body of Android to still be open only after launch, some portions of it will be run more in the spirit of classic open source projects. The tools are already being publicly developed, as I understand it. Also, the core Android team may develop some new applications in the public eye. On a percentage basis, this will be small potatoes, but it is a start.

There will be some amount of détente with respect to upstream contributions, particularly with respect to the Linux kernel. Chris DiBona has indicated as much recently, and by 2013 some of that work will have borne fruit. All obstacles will not have been overcome, so there will still be portions of Android's forked kernel that will not be found in upstream kernels, but progress will have been made.

On the other hand, Android is unlikely to be the open source community's focus come 2013. To steal an expression from the recent credit crisis, Nokia is “too big to fail”. Hence, I fully expect that Symbian and/or Meego will have a big enough market presence — and a stronger collaborative development story — that they will poach a fair number of Android advocates. Android, in effect, will serve as a middle ground between the truly proprietary (iPhone, Windows Phone, Blackberry) and the truly open (Symbian, Meego). Those for whom “free as in freedom” is paramount will head in the direction of the truly open. This does not mean that Android is doomed, as the strength of the open source community in selling devices is unproven. However, it does mean that some amount of potential creative energy will be lost.

Making up for that, in part, will be more high-profile open source applications on top of Android. One pundit complained recently that there were so few Android open source applications. There are actually a fair number of them, but pundits rarely can get past brand names. And, truth be told, there are few brand-name open source projects on Android today. That will change, in part due to Android's market presence (e.g., Mozilla's Fennec will be reasonably popular by 2013) and in part due to changing technology (e.g., more brand name apps will be written in HTML5 and therefore will run on Android).

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