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Open source softwares first appeared on citizens computers more than 20 years ago, and in recent years it has taken up a strong position in the mobile world. In particular, it is present in the key element of smartphones, namely their operating systems. Indeed, mobile operating systems have become strategic considerations in the development of new Internet services and new generations of connected devices. Their performance is a key factor in the user experience of mobile platforms, which is a crucial element of their success.
Being able to rely on a large community of developers is a considerable asset in the development strategy of mobile platforms. The upgradeability of operating systems, and their ability to integrate new functionalities or interface with other online objects, are essential for mobile Internet companies. Conversely, the availability of code can sometimes provide a last-resort solution when an industrial player is no longer able to keep up with his competitors in terms of mobile OS performance.
Of the 8 main mobile operating systems in existence, 4 are currently proprietary (iOS, BlackBerry OS, Windows Phone and Bada) and 4 were designed as (or have become) open source: Symbian, Tizen, Android and webOS. Furthermore, the Mozilla foundation, which developed the Firefox browser, is also working on developing an operating system for mobile terminals. Lastly, the editor of the Linux Ubuntu distribution system (Canonical) has announced a mobile version of Linux that should be available in 2014.
The adoption of an open-source approach in the mobile OS world caters to two complementary objectives. The first, a traditional goal in the world of software, consists in attracting developers in order to create a community and to draw on its creativity. The second objective consists in federating devices manufacturers, mobile telephony operators and manufacturers of electronic equipment around a common software platform.
Android: a controlled opening
In 2007, when Google launched its Android mobile OS derived from Linux, it opted for opening up its code to developers and putting it under Apache licence. Google had then brought together 34 partners in the Open Handset Alliance. To foster the creation of numerous applications to feed its Android Market, Google had also earmarked an overall award of 10 million dollars for developers within the framework of the Android Developer Challenge, which has since then been renewed each year. Nonetheless, criticism has often been forthcoming regarding the conditions under which Google placed the Android code at the disposal of developers and manufacturers. The criticism regarded the deferred availability of the code as well as the fact that access was restricted to Google's industrial partners. The conditions governing modification of the Android code are also still very strict; they prohibit developers from reproducing their work on other environments. Smartphone manufacturers are also placed under strict requirements if they want to use the Android brand name.
The stability (and unicity) of the platform is a key argument for creating an ecosystem of developers. Indeed, one of the risks faced by the Android platform is linked to the fragmentation of its system. Several companies have already begun to develop their own versions (forks). This is the case in particular in Asia with the China Mobile operator or the Baidu browser (Source: Slashgear). Other types of mobile terminals are already starting to be equipped with specific versions of Android. Thus the e-reader developed jointly by Nook Color and Barnes & Noble is based on Android, as is the Amazon Kindle. Moreover, in order to limit such fragmentation, Google wanted the next (fourth) version of its system (named Ice Cream Sandwich) to be common to both smartphones and tablets operating with Android.
Symbian: towards a planned extinction
Symbian inherited the system that equipped Psion organizers (PDAs) in the late 1990s. This system was built by a consortium which brought together the constructors Psion, Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Panasonic. Following the buyout of Symbian by Nokia in 2008, the firm decided to open up its code. Nonetheless, the system, which was not very well suited to the new generations of smartphones, never managed to attract a large community of developers. For its smartphones, Nokia subsequently started development work on Maemo, followed by MeeGo, before signing an alliance with Microsoft recently, to include Windows Phone system in its mobile phones. Nokia finally transferred the Symbian development activities to Accenture, but it announced that support for the system would be provided until 2016. However, an update of Symbian is planned in February 2012. This should feature integration of NFC (Near Field Communication) technologies for contactless payment, and personalization of the user interface (home page, widgets, etc.).
Tizen: an OS for the Internet of Things
The Tizen project takes over from the MeeGo project backed by Intel and Nokia. Following the agreement signed between Nokia and Microsoft in February 2011 over the Windows Phone system, Intel and Samsung decided to maintain and develop MeeGo, renamed Tizen. The Tizen applications framework is mainly based on HTML5, but also on other Web standards. The initial version was announced for the first quarter of 2012, and it will be compatible with the existing MeeGo applications. Tizen also benefits from the support of the operators NTT DoCoMo, Orange, SK Telecom, Telefonica, and Vodafone, and the constructors Panasonic and NEC (Source: Tizen).
Bada: toward the release of the source code
Samsung, which has taken a "multi-systems" approach with terminals using Android or Windows Phone, has also developed its own system, Bada, which is also based on a Linux core. A Bada 2.0 version has been available for developers since August 2011. Bada 2.0 supports the NFC technology, voice recognition, WiFi Direct (a protocol for data transfer from one item of equipment to another, in direct competition with Bluetooth). Bada 2.0 should also support the Russian Glonass satellite navigation system. According to the Wall Street Journal, Samsung is apparently considering making Bada open source by 2012, to associate others in the project and widen its field of application towards other types of devices (in particular for online TVs). Samsung has announced its intention to merge Bada and Tizen: the resulting new operating system will be compatible with the applications already developed for Bada.
WebOS: open source as a last resort
WebOS stems from the Palm OS operating system, developed by Palm, the manufacturer of personal digital assistants (PDAs), which was bought out by the Hewlett-Packard Company in 2010. When HP bought Palm, it announced that webOS would equip its future tablets, smartphones and printers. After the commercial failure of its TouchPad tablet and in the absence of a candidate for a takeover, HP announced at the end of 2011 that it was releasing the WebOS source code under an open-source licence. 600 developers at HP are still working on improving the OS, but its future nonetheless remains uncertain. (Source: New York Times).
Mozilla: the HTML5 app challenge
The Mozilla foundation, which develops the Firefox browser, has launched a project for an mobile operating system. Its aim is to put an end to the difficulties linked to platform fragmentation. Indeed, developers often have to develop as many versions of their applications as there are mobile OSs (or even more when the screen or function key configurations vary within a given system). The Mozilla foundation's operating system should thus be completely open and free. Some elements of the system could be taken from Android, and it is likely to benefit from the enhancements brought by the HTML5 language. The aim here is to enable applications to function via the browser as efficiently as those developed natively on the iOS or Android systems (Source: Ars Technica)
Ubuntu: Linux from PCs to mobile devices
Canonical, which released Linux Ubuntu, wants to make it available for all connected screens and devices. Version 14.04 of the OS which is scheduled for 2014, should integrate this multi-terminal approach. Ubuntu will then be in direct competition with Tizen, which is also backed by the Linux Foundation. Ubuntu is one of the five Linux software packages certified by Genivi (see below) for integration of mobile terminals in motor vehicles.
Genivi: an open source OS for cars
Via the Genivi alliance, motor vehicle manufacturers have begun to jointly work on developing a common software platform to integrate in-vehicle IT functions. It has become increasingly difficult for motor vehicle manufacturers to develop the software environment for online equipment on board their vehicles on their own, and to maintain that environment over the long term. In 2009, BMW, General Motors, Nissan, PSA, Renault and Hyundai thus decided to federate their efforts, with those of major players in the electronics field (Intel, Nokia, Samsung) and the main equipment manufacturers within the Genivi consortium. Since its creation, Genivi has welcomed over 100 members. Right from the start, the founders of Genivi wanted the platform to be standardized, open source, and Linux-based. The members of Genivi initially selected MeeGo as the base for all their work. After Nokia abandoned MeeGo, they turned to Tizen, while certifying four other Linux distributions : Ubuntu (Canonical), Mentor Graphics, Montavista and Wind River. (Source: EETimes)
Webinos: a European OS for connected objects
The project led by the European consortium webinos (Secure WebOS Application Environment) is aimed at developing a universal platform that is compatible with various types of devices: mobile phones, PCs, tablets, interactive TV or in-vehicle computers. WebinOs has already made public 27 of its programming interfaces (APIs): some of them are based on the W3C specifications, while other, more recent, interfaces relate to television, NFC chips and the different types of sensors. The consortium is piloted by the German Fraunhofer Institute. The project is co-financed by the European Union (to the tune of 10 million euros), industrial actors (BMW, Sony Ericsson, Samsung Electronics) and operators (Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia, DoCoMo) and is based on open source software and W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards. (Source: Cordis-European Commission).
Wikipedia: Mobile operating system
There Is No Such Thing as Android, Only Android-Compatible
Photo credits: iStock Photo, Rellas