Will Nokia Ever Realize Open Source Is Not a Panacea?

Thu, 18/08/2011 - 18:49
Thu, 18/08/2011 - 18:49

I was pretty sure there was something wrong with the whole thing in fall of 2009, when they first asked me. A Nokia employee contacted me to ask if I'd be willing to be a director of the Symbian Foundation (or so I thought that's what they were asking — read on). I wrote them a thoughtful response explaining my then-current concerns about Symbian:

  • the poor choice of the Eclipse Public License for the eventual code,
  • the fact that Symbian couldn't be built in any software freedom system environment, and
  • that the Symbian source code that had been released thus far didn't actually run on any existing phones.

I nevertheless offered to serve as a director for one year, and I would resign at that point if the problems that I'd listed weren't resolved.

I figured that was quite a laundry list. I also figured that they probably wouldn't be interested anyway once they saw my list. Amusingly, they still were. But then, I realized what was really going on.

In response to my laundry list, I got back a rather disturbing response that showed a confusion in my understanding. I wasn't being invited to join the board of the Symbian Foundation. They had asked me instead to serve as a Director of a small USA entity (that they heralded as Symbian DevCo) that would then be permitted one Representative of the Symbian Foundation itself, which was, in turn, a trade association controlled by dozens of proprietary software companies.

In fact, this Nokia employee said that they planned to channel all individual developers toward this Symbian DevCo in the USA, and that would be the only voice these developers would have in the direction of Symbian. It would be one tiny voice against dozens of proprietary software company who controlled the real Symbian Foundation, a trade association.

Anyone who has worked in the non-profit sector, or even contributed to any real software freedom project can see what's deeply wrong there. However, my response wasn't to refuse. I wrote back and said clearly why this was failing completely to create a software freedom community that could survive vibrantly. I pointed out the way the Linux community was structured: whereby the Linux Foundation is a trade association for companies — and, while they do fund Linus' salary, they don't control his or any other activities of developers. Meanwhile, the individual Linux developers have all the real authority: from community structure, to licensing, to holding copyrights, to technical decision-making. I pointed out if they wanted Symbian to succeed, they should emulate Linux as much as they could. I suggested Nokia immediately change the whole structure to have developers in charge of the project, and have a path for Symbian DevCo to ultimately be the primary organization in charge of the codebase, while Symbian Foundation could remain the trade association, roughly akin to the Linux Foundation. I offered to help them do that.

You might guess that I never got a reply to that email. It was thus no surprise to me in the least what happened to Symbian after that:

So, within 17 months of Symbian Foundation's inquiry to ask me to help run Symbian DevCo, the (Open Source) Symbian project was canceled entirely, the codebase was now again proprietary (with a few of the old codedumps floating around on other sites), and the Symbian Foundation consists only of a single webpage filled with double-speak.

Of course, even if Nokia had tried its hardest to build an actual software freedom community, Symbian still had a good chance of failing, as I pointed out in March 2010. But, if Nokia had actually tried to release control and let developers have some authority, Symbian might have had a fighting chance as Free Software. As it turned out, Nokia threw some code over the wall, gave all the power to decide what happens to a bunch of proprietary software companies, and then hung it all out to dry. It's a shining example of how to liberate software in a way that will guarantee its deprecation in short order.

Of course, we now know that during all this time, Nokia was busy preparing a backroom deal that would end its always-burgeoning-but-never-complete affiliation with software freedom by making a deal with Microsoft to control the future of Nokia. It's a foolish decision for software freedom; whether it's a good business decision surely isn't for me to judge. (After all, I haven't worked in the for-profit sector for fifteen years for a reason.)

It's true that I've always given a hard time to Maemo (and to MeeGo as well). Those involved from inside Nokia spent the last six months telling me that MeeGo is run by completely different people at Nokia, and Nokia did recently launch yet another MeeGo based product. I've meanwhile gotten the impression that Nokia is one of those companies whose executives are more like wealthy Romans who like to pit their champions against each other in the arena to see who wins; Nokia's various divisions appear to be in constant competition with each other. I imagine someone running the place has read too much Ayn Rand.

Of course, it now seems that MeeGo hasn't, in Nokia's view, “survived as the fittest”. I learned today (thanks to jwildeboer) that, In Elop's words, there is no returning to MeeGo, even if the N9 turns out to be a hit. Nokia's commitment to Maemo/MeeGo, while it did last at least four years or so, is now gone too, as they begin their march to Microsoft's funeral dirge. Yet another FLOSS project Nokia got serious about, coordinated poorly, and yet ultimately gave up.

Upon considering Nokia's bad trajectory, it led me to think about how Open Source companies tend to succeed. I've noticed something interesting, which I've confirmed by talking to a lot of employees of successful Open Source companies. The successful ones — those that get something useful done for software freedom while also making some cash (i.e., the true promise of Open Source) — let the developers run the software projects themselves. Such companies don't relegate the developers into a small non-profit that has to lobby dozens of proprietary software companies to actually make an impact. They don't throw code over the wall — rather, they fund developers who make their own decisions about what to do in the software. Ultimately, smart Open Source companies treat software freedom development like R&D should be treated: fund it and see what comes out and try to build a business model after something's already working. Companies like Nokia, by contrast, constantly put their carts in front of all the horses and wonder why those horses whinny loudly at them but don't write any code.

Open Source slowly became a fad during the DotCom era, and it strangely remains such. A lot of companies follow fads, particularly when they can't figure what else to do. The fad becomes a quick-fix solution. Of course, for those of us that started as volunteers and enthusiasts in 1991 or earlier, software freedom isn't some new attraction at P. T. Barnum's circus. It's a community where we belong and collaborate to improve society. Companies are welcomed to join us for the ride, but only if they put developers and users in charge.

Meanwhile, my personal postscript to my old conversation with Nokia arrived in my inbox late in May 2011. I received a extremely vague email from a lawyer at Nokia. She wanted really badly to figure out how to quickly dump some software project — and she wouldn't tell me what it was — into the Software Freedom Conservancy. Of course, I'm sure this lawyer knows nothing about the history of the Symbian project wooing me for directorship of Symbian DevCo and all the other history of why “throwing code over the wall” into a non-profit is rarely known to work, particularly for Nokia. I sent her a response explaining all the problems with her request, and, true to Nokia's style, she didn't even bother to respond to me thanking me for my time.

I can't wait to see what project Nokia dumps over the wall next, and then, in another 17 months (or if they really want to lead us on, four years), decides to proprietarize or abandon it because, they'll say, this open-sourcing thing just doesn't work. Yet, so many companies make money with it. The short answer is: Nokia, you keep doing it wrong!

Update (2011-08-24): Boudewijn Rempt argued another side of this question. He says the Calligra suite is a counterexample of Nokia getting a FLOSS project right. I don't know enough about Calligra to agree or disagree.