[Much has been said about open source projects – and open source platforms are now powering an ever-increasing share of the mobile market. But what is “open” and how can you measure openness? As part of our new research report (free download), VisionMobile Research Partner Liz Laffan introduces the Open Governance Index – a new approach to measuring the “openness” of software projects, from Android to WebKit]
Openness as a function of governance
We at VisionMobile have been researching, investigating and helping to educate the industry about open source for the past five years. In this time open source software has been transformed from geekware to business as usual. Much has been written and debated regarding open source licenses – from the early days of the GPL license to the modern days of the Android platform.
Despite the widespread use of open source, from Android to WebKit, there is one very important aspect that has been neglected: openness and how to measure it.
Openness goes far beyond the open source license terms and into what is termed Governance. While licenses determine the rights to use, copy and modify, governance determines the right to gain visibility, to influence and to create derivatives of a project, whether in the form of spin-offs, applications or devices. And while licenses apply to the source code, governance applies to the project or platform. More importantly, the governance model describes the control points used in an open source project like Android, Qt or WebKit, and is a key determinant in the success or failure of a platform.
The governance model used by an open source project encapsulates all the hard questions. Who decides on the project roadmap? How transparent are the decision-making processes? Can anyone follow the discussions and meetings taking place in the community? Can anyone create derivatives based on the project? What compliance requirements are there for creating derivative spin-offs, applications or devices, and how are these requirements enforced? It is governance that determines who has influence and control over the project or platform – beyond what is legally required in the open source license.
In today’s world of commercially-led mobile open source projects, it is not enough to understand the open source license used by a project. It is the governance model that makes the difference between an “open” and a “closed” project.
Our research (free copy of full report here) showcases eight mobile open source projects: Android, MeeGo, Linux, Qt, WebKit, Mozilla, Eclipse and Symbian. We selected these projects based on breadth of coverage; we picked both successful (Android) and unsuccessful projects (Symbian); both single-sponsor (Qt) and multi-sponsor projects (Eclipse); and both projects based on meritocracy (Linux) and membership status (Eclipse).
Our research, carried out over a six-month period, included analysis of these popular open source projects, through discussions with community leaders, project representatives, academics and open source scholars. This research was partially funded by webinos, an EU-funded project under the EU FP7 programme, aiming to deliver a platform for web applications across mobile, PC, home media (TV) and in-car devices.
We quantified governance by introducing the Open Governance Index, a measure of open source project “openness”. The Index comprises thirteen metrics across the four areas of governance:
1. Access: availability of the latest source code, developer support mechanisms, public roadmap, and transparency of decision-making
2. Development: the ability of developers to influence the content and direction of the project
3. Derivatives: the ability for developers to create and distribute derivatives of the source code in the form of spin-off projects, handsets or applications.
4. Community: a community structure that does not discriminate between developers
The Open Governance Index quantifies a project’s openness, in terms of transparency, decision-making, reuse and community structure.
Does openness warrant success?
But what is it that makes an open source project successful? Why do some projects become an immediate success, while others barely get off the ground before crashing and burning? We know that just like commercial ventures, open source projects have different cultures and drivers – but we do believe that you should be able to measure the way that open source projects interact with the community of users and contributors that they build up around themselves.
Our research suggests that platforms that are most open will be most successful in the long-term. Eclipse, Linux, WebKit and Mozilla each testify to this. In terms of openness, Eclipse is by far the most open platform across access, development, derivatives and community attributes of governance. It is closely followed by Linux and WebKit, and then Mozilla, MeeGo, Symbian and Qt. Seven of the eight platforms reviewed fell within 30 percentage points of each other in the Open Governance Index.
Moreover, our research identified certain attributes that successful open source projects have. These attributes are timely access to source code, strong developer tools, process transparency, accessibility to contributing code, and accessibility to becoming a committer. Equal and fair treatment of developers – “meritocracy” – has become the norm, and is expected by developers with regard to their involvement in open source projects.
The Android Paradox
Android ranks as the most closed project, with an Open Governance Index of 23%, yet at the same time is one of the most successful projects in the history of open source. Is Android proof that open governance is not needed to warrant success in an open source project?
Android’s success may have little to do with the open source licensing of its public codebase. Android would not have risen to its current ubiquity were it not for Google’s financial muscle and famed engineering team. More importantly, Google has made Android available at zero cost, since Google’s core business is not software or search, but driving eyeballs to ads. As is now well understood, Google’s strategy has been to subsidise Android such that it can deliver cheap handsets and low-cost wireless Internet access in order to drive more eyeballs to Google’s ad inventory.
Equally importantly, Android would not have risen were it not for the billions of dollars that OEMs and network operators poured into Android in order to compete with Apple’s iconic devices. As Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO, said in June,2011, “Apple created the conditions necessary for Android”.
Download the full report for an in-depth analysis of the openness of Android, MeeGo, Linux, Qt, WebKit, Mozilla, Eclipse and Symbian. Drop us a line and tell us what you think.
[Liz Laffan is a Research Partner at VisionMobile. Liz has been working in the telecoms and mobile industry for over 20 years, with large telco organisations, start-up technology ventures, software development and licensing firms. Liz's interests lie in open source software governance and licensing and in particular how best can commercial organisations interact with open source projects. She can be reached at liz [at] visionmobile.com]