Open Source Junction: cross-platform mobile apps, Oxford, 29-30 March 2011

by Michelle Pauli on 10 May 2011 , last updated


A report from the OSS Watch Open Source Junction, held at Trinity College Oxford, 29-30 March 2011, by Michelle Pauli

More people pooling more resources in new ways is the history of civilisation – Howard Rheingold

Open source software features, in some form, in just about every mobile device. This has created huge opportunities for innovation, communication and collaboration, and there is wide interest in mobile apps in the developer, consumer and business world. Yet, so far, there have been few attempts to bring together commercial and academic developers working on mobile apps in order to build partnerships based on lessons learned from open source development.

Open Source Junction, with its goal of building a sustainable community of stakeholders interested in mobile technologies, did just that. The first in a series of planned events, this two-day meeting focusing on cross-platform mobile apps gathered participants from all sectors to not only discuss innovation and collaboration but also take the first steps towards making it happen.

Open innovation

The 21st-century model of an organisation is ‘default to open’, declared Roland Harwood of 100% Open, citing Wikileaks as a topical example. Setting the scene for the networking elements of the event, he explained that open innovation is less about the ‘what’ than the ‘who’. It recognises that not all the smartest people work for us, so we need to move from the conceptual position that value lies in what we hold in our heads to the understanding that value lies in who we have around us. Or, as 100% Open put it, ‘innovating with partners by sharing the risks and rewards’.

Quoting the writer JG Ballard, Roland suggested that ‘the future reveals itself through the peripheral’ and said that we all need to be better at spotting what’s coming from outside our own sector. ‘Talk to lots of people and don’t stay in your own bubbles,’ he urged.

He had some powerful examples of companies that had opened up and reaped the rewards. These ranged from Lego’s inspired tolerance of copyright infringement that has made its Mindstorms range such a success, to Local Motors, a car sales company where customers have a hand in building the cars (think ‘beer and welding evenings’). He also namechecked Mozilla and Android to demonstrate that open source is mainstream business now.

A slight note of cynicism entered the discussion when Roland was asked if, with some of the ‘customer-led innovation projects’ he described, there was an element of companies trying to get customers to do their marketing work for them. ‘It’s a fine line,’ he admitted. ‘But it is also possible to have a more two-way relationship with customers so that it is not just a one-way street based on selling.’

In any case, with open innovation, coming up with ideas is rarely the problem. The hard work lies in making them happen and the challenge is to not only recognise a good idea (which is crucial at the start of the process) but also to recognise the effort involved in taking it forward.

Culture clash?

One of the reasons why implementing a good idea can be hard work comes down to clashes of cultures. There can be inertia and distrust between innovators and corporate bodies and collaboration can be perceived as risky. Roland described the ‘airlock solution’ that his organisation has pioneered to reassure both parties that ideas can be discussed in a confidential and ‘safe’ space.

Gabriel Hanganu, community development manager at OSS Watch, brought the issue home to the particular audience at Open Source Junction by focusing in on academic/business partnerships. He cited some fascinating surveys, including one conducted among UK academics by the Advanced Institute of Management Research, which found that academics are five times more likely to be entrepreneurial than the general public.

Another, a 2010 survey by UK Innovation Research Centre, found that most academics engage with industry to further their research. They are also interested in the impact of their research – its practical applications. Few academics engage with industry for purely financial gain and, increasingly, they are looking to build research networks.

On the industry side, there is a general distrust of academic business ability: it is felt that academics cannot, and do not want to, conduct outsourced research delivered in short timeframes. But, said Gabriel, industry needs to accept universities as equal partners, valued for their strengths.

For Gabriel, the key is practice-led transformation: it is not enough just to change perception of each other’s sector or have policies to work towards a common goal – you need open development to create the change from within.

An example of this kind of creative partnership in action came from the University of Oxford’s John Lyle, with his presentation on Webinos. This is a European Union project to produce a cross-device runtime environment for web applications. The idea is that fragmentation increases when you move from mobile to TV, laptops, navigation devices, etc. – at the moment, you can’t play a game on your mobile, walk into your house and seamlessly transfer your playing experience to your TV, for example. Webinos aims to resolve this by delivering an open web platform to allow apps to run across mobile, home media, PC and in-car devices.

Some hard questions were asked about how similar Webinos is to other projects around open web apps and the feasibility of trying to generalise a user interface, but the really exciting thing about Webinos is its success in bringing together a wide, pan-European, cross-sector consortium. It consists of 22 founding members from nine countries and the industrial partners include Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Deutsche Telecom and BMW.

As well as Webinos’s founding partnership, John said that the project is committed to creating ‘a worldwide open source community driving and using the results’.

How will that be achieved? Although 15% of Webinos’s funding has been earmarked for community-building, John was warned by Gabriel that ‘in our experience people talk a lot about building community but not a lot happens until the end, when funding has run out and it’s all unsustainable. At OSS Watch we advise people to think about sustainability right from the start.’


So, given that the aim of Open Source Junction is to build a community, what does that mean and how can it be done?

Ross Gardler, manager of OSS Watch and vice-president of community development at the Apache Software Foundation, tackled the topic head on and pinpointed the importance of a governance model: it is the structure that underpins how decisions are made, who makes them and how; conflict resolution and sustainability.

There are two extremes of open source governance: benevolent dictatorship and meritocracy, with the main difference showing up in how conflicts are resolved. Benevolent dictatorship requires ‘genius’, including very strong interpersonal skills; meritocracies do not have that problem, but they can stagnate if not managed well.

But, whichever you go for, said Ross, ‘it is extremely hard to build a community. So get on with building it and stop agonising about it!’

According to Stephen Walli, technical director of the Outercurve Foundation, the ‘campfire rule’ is that we’ve understood communities ‘since you had a campfire and I wanted to sit beside it’ and so open source communities are nothing new. But, again, the governance system needs to be resolved early on.

It is also crucial to make it as simple as possible for people to get involved: ‘The magic can happen on day one but you have to tell people what you want and how they can do it – you have to make it easy for them,’ he said.

Businesses often look to foundations as IP packagers and liability firewalls so they can grow their community more easily. The nine biggest open source projects in the world are based in foundations, Stephen added.

Sander van der Waal of OSS Watch offered some guidance on easing the open development process and advised that there are two essential collaboration tools: information and communication. A good issue-tracker system is crucial to both of these, along with a functioning mailing list.

The positive impact that successful community-building can offer was amply demonstrated by Scott Wilson from CETIS at the University of Bolton. He described how the Wookie widget project started out as a tiny deliverable worked on by a small number of people from one organisation funded from one source for a fixed time. Thanks to its entry into the Apache Incubator, it is now a viable, sustainable piece of open source software and the result is better software than they could have created alone, more interesting research opportunities, far greater impact and a wealth of new partnerships. It has even made money, and did so quickly.

But what can also damage a community beyond repair? Filthy lucre, said Ross. ‘Money ruins everything! Do not have money inside your community! It does not have any place there. It has to be an even playing field. If someone can buy influence then your community is broken,’ he emphasised.

Business sense

While money may cause problems within the governance of a community, it’s also the reason that open source communities need a business model to be sustainable.

Nick Allott, founder of NquiringMinds, raised some eyebrows in the audience with his claim that ‘code is a liability not an asset’, because, as Ross concurred, maintaining software costs money. ‘You have to account for that even if it is open source,’ he said. ‘Someone has to fix the bugs and get the servers back up and all sorts of things and that costs money. You have to generate some money and so someone somewhere has to have a business model. It might be to make money or it might be to reduce costs. If you do not do that then you will fail.’

What kinds of business models are out there? Quite a few, it seems. Potential business models include advertising, dual licensing and packaging for hardware and services (such as warranties, support or customisations). In the mobile app space, people are making money from app sales, upgrades and in-app sales, advertising and server-side revenue. However, the mobile app market is too young for anyone to really know the future – we don’t know what will be commoditised and what the healthy revenue streams will be in five years.

Nick took a look at some of the murkier methods used by bigger business in the open source space, based on growing the ecosystem, controlling the ecosystem and devaluing competitors’ assets. ‘Open source is not always nice and friendly,’ he warned. ‘There are ways to make revenue from open source, but the big players play a different game – to reduce costs and take out competition. Open source can have profound ecosystem effects: you can kill business overnight.’

Of course, there can also be partnerships that are not based on profit. Iris Lapinski of the educational charity Apps for Good offered an inspiring take on collaborative mobile app development with Transit. It’s a Bengali translation app that came out of a course run in Tower Hamlets with a group of girls who realised that there was a problem with communication between their English-speaking teachers and Bengali-speaking parents. Apps for Good brings in experts, from business executives to designers and developers, to work with the young mobile entrepreneurs on a voluntary basis.

Native v web…

Transit will be a native app, unlike most of the apps featured in case studies during the event. The native app v web app dilemma was a thread running through many discussions.

According to Tim Fernando from Oxford University Computing Services, who spoke about the very neat Mobile Oxford app and its associated Molly open source project, ‘If you are working in education, native apps are quite a dangerous route to go down because of renewing code each year, app store commitments and so on.’

App store terms and conditions are certainly an issue for open source developers. However, when asked ‘Are app stores evil?’, Rowan Wilson of OSS Watch took a measured line.

‘They are not evil by default – arguably Maemo repositories were the first app stores,’ he said. ‘The concept itself is not necessarily undermining to open source. Where they are not the sole channel of distribution the problems are significantly reduced. But they do introduce a new form of fragmentation and it can mean that you do not necessarily look outside the one marketplace you see when you get your device.’

Despite the appeal for developers of the web app over the native app, it was also recognised that apps for the iPhone appeal as a ‘shiny new thing’ to vice-chancellors.

Mike Jones from the University of Bristol, whose MyMobileBristol web app provides time- and location-sensitive information for students (such as the nearest available computer terminal and the next bus to the halls of residence), commented that ‘people ask “is it on the app store?”’ and it doesn’t need to be but they think that to access something it has to be on the app store. There are also people in the university who worry that the university does not have a brand presence on the app store.’

Where next?

One of the most important elements of the event was the ‘speed dating’ session, in which participants introduced themselves to each other and sought synergies between skills and needs and projects. It was the first step in developing the nascent Open Source Junction community and a number of potential partnerships were identified immediately.

In the closing session, OSS Watch’s Gabriel Hanganu identified three key areas for the future of Open Source Junction – open development, sustainability and marketing – and said that ‘depending on how these are addressed, the community will live or die’. Given the enthusiastic response to the event and the firm prospect of future collaboration, the community’s life force is already looking strong.

If you enjoyed reading this report, you may also like to see Michelle’s mini-interviews with some of the attendees.

A second event of the series, on context-aware mobile technologies, was organized in July 2011.

Further reading


Related information from OSS Watch