As if the announcements last week didn’t short enough neural circuits, it was also Symbian’s tenth anniversary, so the week ended with the whole staff of Symbian UK partying, as Prince never sang, like it was 1998. I really needed a weekend of recovery in order to be able to reflect with any clarity on the general response to the plan.
I’m going to ignore the positive reactions - it looks like most people think it’s a great conception and have wished us well - beyond just saying Thanks. More interesting are the areas of our communication where a few packets got dropped and commentators ended up getting the detail not quite right. (To be clear - that’s our fault.) And the areas where observers have been most openly skeptical. A bit of skepticism is totally understandable - apart from the fact that it makes good reading one only has to look at the history of big companies talking about open source software to see why. The largest areas of doubt or uncertainty seem to be as follows.
Whether ‘open’ really means open
We gave a timetable which said the full platform would be available under a standard open source license (the EPL) within two years or so. A couple of things could have been much clearer about this.
To start with, it doesn’t mean people have to wait two years before they can access source code. In fact you can think of the plan as being in three stages. Stage One: between now and the regulatory approval of the transaction, during which time nothing changes. Stage Two: once the Foundation starts operations, let’s say some time early next year, at which point the source code will be available to all Foundation Members. Stage Three: the code gets released under the EPL to all (including non-Members). The transition from Two to Three should more likely be a progressive process, incidentally, rather than a single big-bang.
Anyone who’s looking for the catch could read the sequence I’ve described above as a way of delaying the wider distribution of the source. But that doesn’t really stack up, since it will be available to Members, and membership is open to all. (The only wrinkle is that the license won’t quite be the EPL, but it will still be royalty-free.) The whole mechanism is just a way of getting the source code into many of the right hands sooner, given the lawyer-hair-raisingly large amounts of work involved in getting the code ready to be opened out under the EPL.
Whether ‘free’ really means free
Basically, yes it does. If there is a catch here it seems a minor one: that period where the code will only be available to Members, who need to pay US$1500 annual Membership dues. And free means we don’t even have any plans to fund the Foundation by putting adverts in the source code.
(A common follow-up question when discussing this internally maybe shows the kind of mindset shift we need to take. If it’s really both open and free, doesn’t this mean rivals could obtain access to the platform for nothing and not give back?
Broadly speaking, yes. This point chimes with Bruce Perens’ helpful four-point scale of the types of involvement one can have in open source projects, ranging from benefactor at one end to parasite at the other. [I am fortunate enough to have had Bruce describe this in person; the best web record of it I can find is in this slashdot interview here.] A rival acting in this way would be considered a parasite and, by Bruce’s analysis, may actually lose out in the end, since the community will be more eager to help their competitors.
While that sounds morally just, I’m not sure if it’s true. More likely we just live with it: an acceptable cost more than compensated for by the creation of a healthy community.)
Whether ‘neutral’ can really be neutral
I’d rank “control point” as one of the most overused, as well as one of the ugliest, phrases in the mobile industry’s collective vocabulary, so any claim to neutrality needs to be treated with caution. Suffice to say there are a few aspects in the design of the Foundation that give it, I hope, a pretty good chance of genuine independence.
First of all, the seats on the Board simply give each Board Member one vote. This could have come across more clearly in the original comms we did, since it was misheard in a number of places. To be clear, it’s one seat and one vote whether you are the world’s largest phone vendor or a Board Member in a different part of the value-chain altogether. So this looks encouraging.
More significant is a principle that I and many involved are passionate about. This is that the Foundation should keep the decision-making on matters of operational governance (stuff like approving the salaries of management, picking a stationery supplier, and so on) separate from the decision-making regarding the evolution of the software itself. I say “should” because a few details still need to be worked out, but you get the idea. Put simply, you get influence over Board matters by being on the Board and influence over the code by being active on working groups and projects. I propose there is a good test for whether the Foundation is being successful at this: in an ideal world the Board Minutes should be, at least to most people interested in software, a mind-numbingly boring read.
But this is definitely one of the bigger minefields we have to navigate. How do you reconcile the common desire here to create a totally independent entity that makes technical decisions on merit, with the natural human impulse to want something in return for donations? Being alert to this challenge at the very least has to be a start.
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