Open or not open? That is the question.

For many of the open source “purists” in the ICT4D field, there is only one (relatively rigid) way to run an open source project. For others – usually those who have had to actually work through the many challenges and complexities of open sourcing a piece of software – things are rarely that clear-cut. Being “open”, and “openness” in itself, can mean many different things.

Three bits of news from the past fortnight highlight how difficult and controversial being truly “open” can be.

1. Twitter

In an attempt to “ensure users can interact with Twitter the same way everywhere”, the company announced that they were considering restricting – and even blocking – access to their API for third party applications. Although this may make sense from a business or user-experience perspective, it was arguably the very explosion of these third party Twitter clients which accelerated the growth of the service. Twitter’s decision to be more strategic with their API, rather than let anyone anywhere build applications around it, is a clear attempt to regain control of the micro-blogging service. The full story is available on the BBC Technology pages.

2. Android Marketplace

Right from its inception, Apple have been heavily criticised in some quarters for the way they control every aspect of the running of their App Store. Applications are vetted and quality tightly controlled, meaning that not “any-old-application” makes it into the store. While this may be problematic for application developers, end-users (such as iPhone and iPod Touch owners) get a largely guaranteed experience – apps that work, apps that have a reasonable and familiar UI experience,  and apps that are malware and virus free. The Android Marketplace is everything that the App Store isn’t, and whilst it’s fully open and community-managed approach may make the purists purr, for the end user the experience can be much more of a challenge. You can read more on the BBC here, where the open nature of the Android platform is described as a “boon and a danger”.

3. Android Honeycomb

“In the great mobile-device wars, Google has portrayed itself as the open-source crusader doing battle against the leaders in proprietary software—Apple, Microsoft, and Research In Motion”. This argument held up strong until a couple of weeks ago when Google – again in the “interests of the user experience” – decided to delay releasing the source code of its latest Android operating system. This has caused something of a shock in the mobile world, but for others it comes as no surprise.

Problematic as they may be, these little nuggets of news confirm one thing – that the mobile industry is in a constant state of flux. Two things we can be sure of, though, are that even seemingly unambiguous terms such as “open” can never be taken for granted, and that open can never be assumed – by default – to be better than closed.

34 thoughts on “Open or not open? That is the question.

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  5. Michael Downey says:

    I think it’s important to remember that the challenges and rewards of open source software are very different than those of an “open source” style community. Indeed, having one does not necessarily imply the other. At OpenMRS, we made a very conscious decision to explicitly state in our mission that open source doesn’t just describe our software, but the idea of “openness” is also the core of our community values.

    It’s always been much easier for an open source project succeed when those values and licenses have been in place since the beginning, and we’ve been fortunate in that regard. Twitter’s API and Android are two examples of projects that have had to work harder to “open up” systems and ecosystems that have previously been closed to some extent. It’s much more challenging, for sure, and it would be interesting to see research about the similarities and differences between the two trajectories.

  6. Neo says:

    I honestly think this is a bit of a crippled logic and I do not follow your intention with this post. It feels mostly likely a need to bash Twitter and Google with not too many grounds for the statements made.

    (1) Twitter has never claimed to be open-sourced or “open”. Sure, they have provided an API which might lead you to claim they have, yet they are and always have been a heavily venture-backed business. To me this is mostly a misconception from the developer community and not a fact that Twitter has said this. The move per se has not surprised me for a bit and it makes sense for them to foster that perspective of many reasons yet I understand the anger from previous developers that they are “closing” their system from their honey pot.

    I didn’t see the same panic about this when Apple changed their policy. So… 😉

    (2) The marketplace for Android is still very open yet open has it consequences. I for one rather see this openness than Apple’s moral hypocritical App Store which is incredibly closed. Is the Android Market different? Yes. Can it be improved? Yes. I am not sure what this has anything to do with being open or not. Sure, open spaces needs monitoring. That is not a huge surprise if we look at Wikipedia.

    (3) What has a delay of a release anything to do with being open-sourced? I know plenty of projects – open-sourced – that keep release candidates “closed” at first so that the source code is tested first. Sure, in the perfect world, everything is released openly all the time. To me this statement makes absolutely no sense. The reactions in the “mobile” world, if they are true, feels mostly exaggerated. I have been working with Android for a long time and I haven’t heard a word about this being a huge problem for the platform’s vision. Grumbles? Yes. Shockwaves? No.

  7. kiwanja says:

    @Michael – Good points. Part of the debate is all about what open really means, both in terms of software and methodology. What OpenMRS have done has been great, and as you’ll likely know we’ve been battling with our own interpretation with FrontlineSMS.

    @Neo – Thanks for your thoughts and comments here. In terms of bashing Google or Twitter, I tend to make it a habit of not bashing anyone or any company in my posts, since it’s usually counter-productive. My main objective in this post was to report what was already more widely reported – Twitter and their API, problems with the Marketplace, and Android (for what I believe is the first time) being held back. These are all facts, and I guess there are multiple interpretations of these, which is why it’s all such a challenge. Twitter may have never said that they’re “open”, but by previously allowing a free-for-all via their API, that’s what they were effectively doing. All-in-all I find this all fascinating stuff, and simply wanted to highlight how challenging it all was. Thanks for contributing. 🙂

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  9. Neo says:

    I would not personally leave out Apple and Microsoft here in any review, not saying I am open to any company yet the players you would NEED to address here are Apple, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and actually more importantly Facebook(!). I do not have ANY alliances with either. It is however important to keep ANY blog post balanced here when you cover this if you would like to be perceived as unbalanced. Your post seems very unbalanced here (sorry!), as you are at least missing three(!) major players.

    We have plenty of more companies here in the space regardless. First let us look at Facebook’s mobile strategy? Have you analyzed where and how the traffic to these different social media sites come? What is the business model? Are they open? Are they closed? Why are they etc etc. It is a very slippery slope here….

    There is an obvious danger not to address all companies in blog posts as it becomes to easily unbalanced and the interpretation is one-sided. Based on your tweet which I got you marked that as purely Twitter, Android using hashtags, but no open-ended hashtag as mobile, open-source, Apple etc. Hence I was lead to believe your intentions were very one-sided. I do apologize for thinking that if that was not your intent.

    There are plenty of “worse” systems, frameworks, companies etc out there as far as openness than the ones you pointed out in your blog post. You did in your comment point out that there are more but your blog post didn’t reflect that. Maybe it is better to highlight the real problem and not the perceived one. Your title is completely misguiding based on your blog post as well as your answers/comments.

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  12. kiwanja says:

    @Neo – Think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one! The post was about three bits of high-profile news which came out in quick succession, and the reaction to it (not my reaction), each of which touched on an element of “openness”. It is not designed to be a post about everything and every company in the space, or judgement on whether they have the right approach or not.

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  17. kiwanja says:

    @Katrin – If you’d care to elaborate I’d love to hear your full thoughts on this. From what I’ve seen on Twitter they’re more of a rant than a structured, sensible argument. Comments sections on blogs are there for a reason!

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