How openness and Linux are unlocking innovation [Part 2]

limo-shikiar-thumbnail-thumb-118x102-41086.jpg Andrew Shikiar, Director of Global Marketing, LiMo Foundation

PART II: KEY REQUIREMENTS FOR A SUCCESSFUL OPEN MOBILE ECOSYSTEM

Part I of this series on how openness and Linux are unlocking innovation, outlined the many definitions that can be applied to the term “openness” and examined how Linux is impacting the evolving mobile ecosystem. However, to fully appreciate that impact, a greater understanding of ecosystems, particularly the open mobile ecosystem, is needed.

For openness to successfully generate innovation, it has to create a rich ecosystem that both attracts developers and enables them to thrive and prosper. Currently, various platform providers are vying for the attention of the third-party developers by revealing APIs and providing software marketplaces.

The developers themselves seem to be gravitating towards platforms they believe are “cool” and which will eventually generate profits. However, the history of some prominent web and mobile platforms such as Mobile Java, Palm, and Windows Mobile has shown that if the open ecosystem is not consistent, the developer community collapses.

The strength of any ecosystem is determined by a number of factors:

  • the ease with which developers can begin creating applications;
  • the strength of the APIs; the availability and range of development tools;
  • the route and terms to market for applications and, of course,
  • the size of the addressable subscriber base.

A steep learning curve can become a significant barrier to entry for developers – in other words, it is important to understand if the platform can be programmed using standard development tools and whether it is using a language that is esoteric and difficult to use. For all of its success, even Apple’s iPhone also presents developers with a very steep learning curve by requiring the use of proprietary tools and a variant of C.

Poor discoverability has long been a deterrent to the uptake of innovative mobile applications, leading to deep frustration within the developer community. Application stores and marketplaces are a significant step forward; however, they have also brought to the forefront a number of issues that must be addressed.

At times, the process of allocating prominence – first page display – to applications is not very clear, and in certain cases, developers have to pay for top placement, providing an unfair advantage for large software houses over smaller organizations and hobbyist developers.

Excessive control by the platform provider equally leads to significant frustration within the developer community and stifles innovation. As demonstrated by the Windows Marketplace and Apple App stores, beyond having the final say in what gets listed, delisted or banned, both Microsoft and Apple are enforcing strict and often capricious limiting rules against applications that compete with a handset’s default or native applications – media players, browsers, and mail applications, for example.

The terms of business spell out the relative success or failure of an ecosystem’s ability to generate innovation. This includes the ways the developers can charge for the application; revenue sharing terms; restrictions on the application’s functionalities; and the overheads for certification and security.

Some platforms only allow payment through credit cards, while others enforce a proprietary billing system. Equally, support for intermediate platforms is not always guaranteed.

Apple for instance, does not allow Java, Flash or AJAX on its iPhone OS. Overhead for security can equally weigh heavily on developers’ ROI, as some platforms require applications to pay for a new security certificate each time the application is revised.

This hurdle often acts as a disincentive to developers for bug fixing, in turn affecting the user’s experience.

Part III of this series will examine Linux as a catalyst for open mobile innovation, and what benefit manufacturers, operators, developers, and consumers might reap as a result.

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