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.
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.