Monday, August 1, 2011

Partly EU-funded study finds Android most closed, Eclipse most open among 8 high-profile projects

Vision Mobile, a market analysis and strategy firm, has published an interesting study called the Open Governance Index. The study was partly funded by webinos, an EU-funded project aiming to deliver a platform for web applications across mobile, PC, home media (TV) and in-car devices.

Based on a variety of criteria for openness, the report analyzes eight high-profile projects and arrives at the following ranking -- from low (least open) to high (most open):


Vision Mobile published a summary of the report on its blog. The report is available for download (free of charge).

All of those projects have some relevance to mobile platforms (and some of them simply are mobile platforms). Patents are relevant to one of the openess criteria the report applies. And when a platform like Android exposes device makers and app developers to patent litigation, it's worth asking whether those affected by those patent issues actually get to influence their destiny at the level of the relevant open source project.

No one will be overly surprised to find Android declared far less open than projects with broadbased support, such as Eclipse, Linux, WebKit, Mozilla, and MeeGo. However, Android is also ranked way below Qt and Symbian -- two projects that were largely run by Nokia in recent times.

In terms of source code being "freely available to all dvelopers, at the same time", Android is the only project for which the answer (in light of Honeycomb and other factors) is "No", while it's a clear "Yes" for the other seven projects ranked. That's an easy one to agree on, but one can disagree on what the right methodology for such an assessment is. For example, the Open Governance Index gives the highest ranking in the "license" category to an OSI-approved permissive license. That actually benefits Android because it's published unter the Apache license (though it probably contains far more GPL'd code than Apache-licensed code, and even the part that is Apache-licensed could be considered copyleft-infected by a court of law). Even weak-copyleft licenses are ranked slightly lower than permissive licenses. Free software advocates would certainly argue that copyleft is needed to protect the freedom of the user, but the authors of the report believe that copyleft is an imposition on users as it requires them to publish derivative works under the same (or at least a compatible) license.

The index is based on four categories of criteria:

  • Access

    Free availablility of source code to all developers at the same time; availability under permissive OSI-approvedl icense; developer support mechanisms (availability of mailing lists, forums, bug trackers, documentation and tools to all developers); public availability of project roadmap; transparency of decision mechanisms.

  • Development

    Transparency of contributions and acceptance process (including progress updates); transparency of contributions to project; accessibility to become a committer; transparency of committers; copyright assignment and patent license.

  • Derivatives

    Use of trademarks to control use of platform; constraints on go-to-market channels.

  • Community

    Formal community structure (flat or toll, i.e., tiered rights depending on membership status).

I believe the methodology developed and applied by the Open Governance Index report is very interesting; it may indeed be novel; and I also like the fact that the study discussed each of the analyzed projects in detail and sums up the lessons learned ("best practices" and "practices to avoid"). The report clearly points out that openness doesn't guarantee success just like non-openness doesn't result in failure. Android is very successful so far despite its severe shortcomings in terms of openness.

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