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.

Focus on the users, and all else will follow

If we were to have a mantra on the FrontlineSMS project, it would be this: “Focus on the users, and all else will follow”.

From the very beginning we’ve been unashamedly focused on servicing the needs of our growing NGO user base. Much of the advanced functionality you see in the software today has been requested by users over the course of the last four years, and much of the feature request list we’re working through today is based on feedback received since the major MacArthur-funded re-launch last summer. Our focus on the user is beginning to pay off, with well over 500 members actively engaged online. Although we’re excited with our progress, we’re far from complacent and there’s much more we need to, and can, do.

FrontlineSMS Community

With growing numbers of these users actively engaging online, others have started contributing their own stories on how they’re applying the software in their social change work. All that remains now is the creation of the second part of the community puzzle – this time for developers.

With invaluable support from our friends at the Open Society Institute (OSI) and the Free Software Foundation, last autumn we finally solved some lengthy and complex licensing work with the FrontlineSMS code. With a number of educational establishments, NGOs and individual developers keen to begin work, we pushed the code out on SourceForge, posted a community blog entry a little later, and got on with improving functionality and providing continued frontline technical support to the NGO user base.

Although some early partners have already started working with the code, we’ve been holding back on an official announcement until we have everything in place – IRC, mailing lists, documentation and processes, for example – and the code is in the best possible shape for people to work with.

Earlier last month we started working with Aspiration Tech in San Francisco, who will be responsible for helping build the community. Our own developers, a number of users, and other volunteer programmers are all incredibly excited to be working with Aspiration, who are experts in the field. We’ll make an announcement once we’re good to go.

FrontlineSMS Icon - Photo by Erik Hersman (White African), Kenya, 2008

Although there is considerable buzz and excitement around mobile technology and source code at the moment, we’ve been firm believers that the users come first. Without them you have no project, no community. Only now, after increasing numbers of this first community – the users – begin to apply the software in exciting and innovative ways, is everyone ready – developers included – to tackle the second.