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The Tizen smartphone flopped -- and open source is to blame

Galen Gruman | July 30, 2014
A parade of failed open source smartphone OSes should cause the open source community to rethink its mobile strategy.

But, you may say, Tizen and its Linux Foundation predecessors all had big-name companies behind them, so the leadership and funding has been there to treat the open source effort with corporate leadership. However, these big-name companies all are treating the open source OSes as backup bets, not as serious efforts. Intel, for example, missed the boat in mobile a decade ago, so it has dabbled -- and only dabbled -- in every platform that came after the iPhone to try to break in. Intel is a chip company at heart, not a maker of finished devices.

Half a decade ago, Nokia had nothing to replace its dying Symbian OS, but with their heads firmly buried in the sand, Nokia's execs couldn't accept the end of Symbian, so Maemo, MeeGo, and Tizen never got serious attention at the company. Instead, these projects saw a lot of press releases, then were spun out to an external organization, brought back in, and finally discarded. (Even Symbian bounced between company ownership and open source stewardship, a clear sign of Nokia's clueless management.) Nokia ultimately adopted Windows Phone, only to be bought and later gutted by Microsoft. For years, its management simply grasped at a series of straws, both open source and proprietary.

A couple years ago, Samsung dropped its Bada OS for Tizen to save money by getting Intel to help foot the development bill. Today, the two companies remain the major powers behind Tizen. But it was clear at the recent Tizen Developers Conference that neither company is serious about Tizen. For Intel, it's yet another mobile effort.

For Samsung, Tizen is a back-pocket threat against Google, whose Android OS Samsung has successfully adopted to become the second-most-profitable mobile device maker after Apple. The Google-Samsung relationship has been up and down, with Google concerned about Samsung's user-experience forks and attempts to shove aside Google services (where Google makes its Android money) with Samsung options. When the two fall out, we hear about Samsung's Tizen plans. But the two companies seem to have made up recently, so it's no surprise that Tizen is not important again.

Google's Android is different -- and not really open source
For many people, Google's Android is the poster child of open source mobile. But Android is not a really an open source development effort. Google does the development, not the open source community. Google then open-sources the majority of the Android OS, minus some Google services, as AOSP. It's more freeware than open source.

The AOSP strategy has landed the almost-Android OS into huge markets like China where Google's services are essentially banned, since such governments often want to keep the monitoring, mining, and money of their citizens under their control, not given over to a foreign company. Google may be hoping that eventually those governments will let in its services, in which case making AOSP devices into Android ones would be a piece of cake. That's not an open source strategy but a Trojan source one.


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