Nokia: Open source developers should play by our rules

Nokia has embraced open source, but now says developers should play by its rules. Does it have a point?

I was a little surprised to hear Nokia vice president of software Ari Jaaski's comments last week. Not long ago, Nokia got off to a great start by embracing open source for its mobile device business. But now, according to Jaaski, it's the open source developer community that needs to adapt to the ways of commercial software vendors, not the other way around.

"We want to educate open source developers. There are certain business rules [developers] need to obey, such as DRM, IPR [intellectual property rights], SIM locks, and subsidized business models," Jaaski told attendees of the Handsets World conference in Berlin. In other words, the open source community needs to learn how to keep things closed.

Nokia has been involved with open source for several years. Notably, it used Linux and several open source code libraries as the foundation of Maemo, the operating system for its line of Internet tablet devices. To be fair, Nokia has also contributed to a number of open source projects in return. But if Jaaski thinks that gives Nokia a right to dictate terms -- sorry, to "educate developers" -- I think he's in for a rude awakening.

Not everything needs to be open, and there's certainly still room for proprietary software in the world. But when it comes to development platforms, the competition is increasingly stiff. As John De Goes, president of tools vendor N-Brain, told Javalobby just last week, "The only commercial development tools that can survive today are the ones that leapfrog open source tools."

The most obvious example of a developer platform that leapfrogs the competition is Microsoft Visual Studio. Developers who code for non-Windows operating systems may scoff, but no one who has actually used Visual Studio can deny that it's a top-notch IDE. Moreover, Microsoft is the ultimate authority on the Win32 and .Net APIs, and even the languages, including Visual Basic and C#, are largely Microsoft inventions. How can open source tools compete with that level of vertical integration?

Apple has taken a similar road. Mac OS X developers write to Apple's proprietary Cocoa and Carbon APIs in Objective C, a language that's fairly obscure on other platforms. As such, there's little incentive for anyone to release a competitor to Apple's Xcode IDE -- especially now that it's become the sole development environment for the iPhone.

What these two examples have in common, however, is that Apple and Microsoft are providing developers with end-to-end platforms. They start by creating environments capable of hosting high-value applications. Then they invite developers to those environments by offering high-quality tools. That one-two punch -- create, then invite -- is what keeps developers enthusiastic about coding for Windows and Mac OS X, despite the fact that both are closed, proprietary platforms.

By comparison, what is Nokia offering? It based its Maemo OS on Linux, a platform that already existed and was fully open to developers -- no invitation needed. And now it wants the open source community's help to bolt on such features as DRM and SIM locking? What's the incentive?

Let's be clear: There is not one single application for a mobile phone that benefits from SIM locking. That particular feature is of interest only to the carriers -- and by extension, to Nokia, which wants carriers to support its handsets. Similarly, not only is DRM of little interest to the majority of consumers, it is also widely regarded by developers as technically infeasible, a hopeless time sink, and a waste of money. No wonder Nokia wants it built for free.

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Neil McAllister

InfoWorld
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