On the Open Sourcing of the iPhone [updated]

December 11th, 2008

William Hurley, author of the Evil Genius blog, recently published a post, titled Five Reasons Apple Should Open Source The iPhone. Despite the title, however, he never actually directly argues that the Apple should open source iPhone’s software.

The piece kicks off with this gem:

…BusinessWeek asked me about Apple potentially open sourcing the iPhone over a year ago. Since then: nothing out of Apple, despite mounting pressure from projects like Android that are vying for Apple’s throne.

I guess I missed the part where Apple has any incentive or desire to concern itself with a question Business Week asked this guy. Then, I missed the part where Android is applying “mounting pressure” on Apple’s iPhone.

Continuing:

I’m not asking them to completely open source the iPhone. I’m just asking them to crack the door and let the breeze in.

I thought I was about to embark on reading about 5 reasons Apple should Open Source the iPhone.

At this point, and in the absence of any true guidance from the author as to a thesis he might be driving towards, I began to wonder if he knew that the code base for Mobile Safari (WebKit) is Open Source Software. What about DTrace? I mean… these are all Open Source Software components that are in the iPhone.

Open source is becoming the default way to develop software in many industries.

What does that even mean? I’m at a loss for what even constitutes a “default way to develop software.” It’s hard enough to get everyone to agree on whether or not unit testing is a critical part of the software development process, let alone being anywhere near some sort of industries-wide consensus on whether to Open Source all software, or not.

Hurley goes on to say:

More importantly, many folks that aren’t traditional developers are starting to develop apps for platforms like the iPhone. He who satiates that audience wins the war.

Check out the post; it doesn’t carry any additional meaning when it’s experienced in its full context, either.

Choice

William contends that “Customers love choice.” On the surface, that does seem like a sensible assertion; when I’m in the market to purchase a product or service, I always appreciate having at least a handful of options from which to make my ultimate choice.

On the other hand, too much choice can be a hindrance, as it can get difficult to fully grasp all the merits and trade-offs associated with each choice.

So, there’s a balance.

Naturally, the verdict on where anyone’s threshold of “too much choice” gets drawn will depend on the number of options they are being asked to consider.

Hurley continues:

Open sourcing the iPhone gives customers a much broader selection of applications.

Of course we’re back to what exactly Hurley does or doesn’t mean by “open sourcing the iPhone.” Apart from that, he fails to demonstrate that the selection of applications will be any broader; the App Store has a pretty fucking broad selection.

It seems like the next sensible matter to consider is how a more open ecosystem, like Android, compares against the iPhone’s App Store with respect to volume of available apps.

The numbers seem to defy Hurleys predictions.

Though, to be fair — as the update appended to that link mentions — we may see more apps appear in the Android Marketplace once Google makes it possible for software developers to charge money for their apps.

And what about “all those” Openmoko platform apps out there…?

Customers faced with a plethora of attractive applications when they visit the app store will spend money.

Many developers are now worried that the sheer volume of apps available in the App Store has gotten so large that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for developers to get their apps to stand out.

Many are even calling on Apple to devise ways to let the better ones bubble to the top.

And so this may interestingly be where Apple is on the ironic “downside,” beginning to fall victim to its own success, but where — in deliciously layered irony — Hurley remains chasing a hollow argument.

An open source iPhone dulls some of Android’s luster.

And here I was thinking that Android’s luster was being dulled by the inability for developers to be able to rely on:

  1. screen size
  2. input capabilities
  3. availability of various components
Ol’ Steve can level the playing field—he holds sway over a loyal following of diehard developers.

Last time I looked at the playing field, “ol’ Steve” doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to gain by leveling it.

Linux on the iPhone

Hurley then goes on to argue that if Apple doesn’t open up the iPhone, then someone else will find a way to do it regardless. Why this insight seems particularly riveting to him, I can’t really know.

One might pause to wonder if he’s heard of jailbreaking and rockbox; this happens.

Then, he drops this bomb:

Earth to Apple: if the iPhone had been open sourced, [Linux on the iPhone] probably wouldn’t have happened.

Let’s take a step back. I think we can all agree, at this juncture in history, that if a device has a microprocessor in it, somebody is going to try to get Linux running on it!

So, my alternate-reality wager is that Linux would have been ported to iPhone regardless of whether Apple were more “open” with it or not.

Besides, here we have iPhone Linux and Apple didn’t have to spend a dime on its development. And they won’t be spending any money on supporting it, either.

This is perfect for Apple: nothing to engineer, nothing to QA, and no responsibility to field support calls for it.

If anything, it seems like the teams at Apple have been struggling to keep up with QA issues on their closed and tightly-controlled platform; does anyone really think it makes any sense for Apple to take on the additional resource burden acting on this idea would incur?

The OSS route, however, is finally here.

Now, anyone can install Linux as an alternative OS for their iPhones, and even switch back and forth between iPhone OS; let’s see how many people actually have enough interest to install this.

Perspective & Respect

So, what I want to know is: how many folks with Macs out there are running the Nautilus file manager via X11, instead of dealing with Finder?

Now, I use open source every day.

I’ve been an occasional contributor to a handful of projects (most recently, I’ve submitted a number of patches to plugins for a PHP MVC framework called symfony).

I even published two projects of my own to Sourceforge.

I love, respect, and regularly participate in the phenomenon that is OSS in various capacities, including software development and community support.

That said, I personally can’t bring myself to find any fault with Apple for not having any interest in “open sourcing” the iPhone. At least, not without a compelling economic incentive.

And, let’s face it, all the data points to Apple’s economic model playing out reasonably well, for the time being.

15 Dec: Apple has tweaked the iTunes App Store, in response to some developers’ mounting distress that their for-pay apps were getting buried by the popularity of the free apps, by better showcasing the most popular for-pay apps.