Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Thoughts on Nokia & MS

As predicted, Microsoft and Nokia are tying a knot of sorts, and all sorts of people are extremely disappointed by this news. I’m an Android user right now, but I’m particularly disappointed because Android just isn’t the free platform it claims to be.

A lot of people are blaming Microsoft and dreaming up “entryism” conspiracy theories. These people are entirely wrong; the decision to go MS was signalled a long while ago by Nokia’s board. Nokia are a $40B business: decision making doesn’t work like that. What is true, though, is that occasionally the free software community gets the benefit of large corporations putting resources into developing software, and occasionally those corporations change their mind later. We celebrate the former and mourn the latter, it’s only natural – I’m a big GNOME fan, but it seems that GNOME Mobile, MeeGo, and the various related stacks are basically dead in the water at this point.

This match-up makes a huge amount of sense for Nokia, but sadly it is going to alienate some of their current user base. I liken this to Bob Dylan’s move to electric guitar: his fan base called him a sell-out, and never ever forgave him. Fundamentally, his music changed beyond all recognition. Whether this is right or wrong, of course, lies in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.

Amusingly, this also means that of all the development platforms for native mobile apps, Mono is now exceptionally well-placed. It can compile native code and make full use of native APIs, and comes in an Apple flavour already, with Android along the way. I guess this is an additional sting in the tail for some, particularly since Qt could have also played that role exceptionally well, but we must acknowledge that the free software mobile development stack is actually in quite good shape right now. We don’t have the right development environment for HTML5 apps yet, though.

It’s exceptionally sad that a really free mobile OS hasn’t come to fruition. OpenMoko took a long time to come to market and wasn’t developing quickly enough, that same verdict has now been given on MeeGo. Android is close, but is not developed in an open fashion and in the matter it is delivered is not a free OS. The “commoditization” argument has been shown to be wrong.

What the move to WP7 does signal is strong integration into Windows and, I guess, Exchange and Sharepoint. People aren’t going to care about the OS in a couple of years. For free software to matter in this space, the focus has to be on integration and apps. It doesn’t matter, after all, what’s running the hardware: what matters is what you can do with it. By struggling for freedom at the hardware and OS level, it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture – and with it, strive for things which are totally irrelevant to 99.99% of phone users.

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2 Comments

  1. Federico

    Weren’t Mono apps forbidden in the Apple Store? How could you tell that it’s well-placed (at least on IOS)?

    Then you say: “For free software to matter in this space, the focus has to be on integration and apps. It doesn’t matter, after all, what’s running the hardware: what matters is what you can do with it”

    and that’s exactly the point: if the the hardware is running a proprietary platform, our freedom to run free software on it can be denied in every moment.

  2. Alex

    No, as far as I know, Mono apps are still in the Apple Store – all those Unity games for example are still there. The MonoTouch App Catalogue lists a number of apps available in the main store: http://monotouch.net/Apps

    The problem with the “free hardware/OS” thing is that it is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one: the OS is part of the story, for sure, but the real story is actually the App Store.

    Let me give you an example. I’m an Android user (which is the “most free” mainstream OS right now), but I’m totally locked out of that app store. Why? Because I refuse to link my phone to a Google account and let Google have access to all my data.

    Can I install apps manually? Sure. But where do I download the from? Realistically, it’s a very shabby user experience, and yeah, I could install my own version of Android, but that would be an even worse experience.

    So the lock-in happens pretty high up the stack. If you’re not on an official OS image, you have to keep your own system up-to-date, plus you’re basically locked out of a lot of the interesting bits. Never mind the fact that the hardware is constantly shifting, the number of free drivers is virtually nil, etc. etc.

    You could focus on the OS, and run some kind of OpenMoko or freedroid type system. But those systems are simply not competitive with what’s on the market. The real freedom issue is about what real people can do with actual shipping phones; this is one reason HTML5 is so excellent – people can build generic cross-platform apps for all these phones, and users can have real control over their apps.

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