You can feel the recession biting. It seems to have encouraged several companies to evaluate their open-source strategy. Actually, maybe that reasoning is a little too shallow. There are some deeper reasons we’ve seen Nokia, Google and RedHat change some of their practices. But let’s be clear from the start; some companies, like Nokia, have changed their whole strategy. Others, like RedHat, have made little corrections to their general practice. Nokia made their strategic decision based on failure and RedHat made their practice change due to success.
The Nokia thing. They’ve executed an entire U-turn on their open-source strategy. At a high-level their previous strategy seemed to be (as an external observer) to use their excellent QT toolkit to develop applications for their newly open-sourced Symbian platform for low to mid-range mobiles. Furthermore, they’d use the same toolkit to develop for their next-gen Meego platform. However, for reasons to do with both business and technology, they’ve decided that Windows Phone 7 is to be their next-gen platform of choice. Thankfully, the open-source nature of Meego means that we don’t loose the innovation that has been already contributed to the platform.
The reasons for Nokia’s change have been extensively covered in the computing press. My take is that the major consequence of this is an observation that all of our next-gen mobile platform providers are non-European (yes I’m discounting Symbian). So Android is from Google, WP7 from Microsoft, WebOS from HP and Blackberry from RIM. The first three are US companies, the last is Canadian. This, in my opinion, is a bad thing for Europe. Much of the Nokia R&D on Meego seemed to be outsourced to small to medium sized European companies. I know of at least three British companies (I have resided in the UK for a few years now) that did Meego development which was paid for by Nokia.
On Google’s Honeycomb decision. I’ve not decided yet if this is in response to
- The Chinese strawman argument, or
- Some deep-integration argument.
Maybe it’s both or neither. However, the Chinese strawman is the argument that if Honeycomb is open-source then many companies come along and produce poor-quality, but cheap, devices running the platform. Therefore, devaluing the perception of the platform. I believe that this argument is a poor one, hence I’ve called it a strawman. I don’t see how Android resellers can charge the 30% markup that one of their competitors can charge. Maybe this allows the small number of honeycomb licensees to bump up their margins slightly?
The deep integration argument is that honeycomb is bound to a specific platform like NVidia’s Tegra. Or, more interestingly, Google don’t think that you can do really high-quality UX design in an open-source fashion. There’s been a lot of talk about this lately in the open source world. About the open-source world being hostile to designers. One aspect of this has been the Canonical/Gnome argument. Where, it appears, that Canonical decided that the best way to design their next-gen desktop was to bring the design team in-house (it’s more grey than in-house -v- not in-house) whereas the Gnome team are (almost) entirely open and have even developed the fantabulous sparkle share tool for sharing designs between Gnome designers. What’s clear is that good UX design is hard. What’s unclear is whether being open-source makes good UX more difficult. I think that ThinkUp, Firefox and Gnome 3 make good design stories. For the record, I think Caonical’s Unity is interesting but doesn’t add anything to the point I’m trying to make.
I don’t know the ThinkUp people. But they seem to have a great attitude to encouraging contributions from people who might have traditionally found open-source hostile. From an external perspective, they seem to do great design in a small team and apply it to a hosted web application. Web designers are awesome. They’ve, arguably, made more design progress in the past ten years than desktop designers have made in the past thirty. Those of us who build fat (desktop) apps can then borrow their design ideas.
The Firefox devs are entirely different. It’s a massive project. They have different design constraints than ThinkUp, particularly as they have such a massive install base on so many different platforms. Furthermore, Mozilla has a lot of cash to spend on both user testing and a team of UX desigers. I like Firefox 4. I think you can see the fruits of incremental, good design.
The design community I’m most familiar with are the Gnome 3 designers. What they’ve done in the past six months is amazing. Furthermore, unlike the small integrated team at ThinkUp or the large on-site team at Mozilla, the Gnome design team is distributed (in terms of geography and companies) but well-integrated.
This picture speaks more than a paragraph of text. It shows a clean and consistent desktop. Yes there are a few unpolished edges, but the software hasn’t been released yet. What’s interesting is to observe the “traditional code geeks” talking to the UX designers. Changes to the UI or the UX are, more often than not, bounced off one of the designers. And, more interesting, is that the ideas that the UX designers communicate are being internalised by the developers. Ok, so very few of these developers will ever be kick-ass designers. However, by internalising the design ideas you can see a commitment to bringing fresh UX ideas on board and the value that the developers place on the design team. They’re highly valued and stunningly smart people.
So as usual I started off talking about how this Q1 has been tough for open-source. However my internal optimist has trumped my internal cynic. Nokia and Google may make decisions about their open-source policy, but they’re not the only places that are (or were) doing excellent open-source design and engineering. The loss of Nokia from our ecosystem will be keenly felt. But Intel are pressing forward with Meego and the design ideas that come from Meego are finding their way into Gnome 3 (and vice-versa).