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The Future of Mobile Application Development is Wide Open

Mon, 12/14/2009 - 11:47am
By Eran Strod, Black Duck Software, Inc.

The Future of Mobile Application Development is Wide Open
Consumer interest in smart mobile devices and mobile applications continues to be remarkably strong despite the current state of the economy. Gartner recently released data showing that forty million smartphones were sold in Q2 2009, a 27% increase over last year.

From the unparalleled success of iPhone's App Store and the iPhone itself to the universe of smartphones, consumers crave the ability to be "on" all the time. Top operators looking for the next big thing – and new sources of revenue – are developing wireless devices beyond phones that could yet again revolutionize the consumer marketplace.

Exciting applications are driving momentum for mobile computer platforms, but what may surprise many is that, increasingly, many of these applications are now open source -- and based on current statistics, open source development in the mobile marketplace will only increase as developers recognize its many benefits.
The History and Benefits of Open Source in Mobile Application Development
As a new generation of developers came of age in the late 1990s and early 2000s explosive growth was taking place in the telecommunications industry. The big carriers began to shift from traditional analog-based phone services to the new era of digital mobile communications and related services.

With the Internet presenting vast new opportunities to monetize applications, today's developers are getting more done with less. Open source, with its mantra of recycle, reuse and renew, is the perfect software development model for this new era.

Though in some markets and enterprises the use of open source remains somewhat controversial, its benefits - significantly reduced development costs and time savings - are well documented. Additionally, open source use can make software development far more efficient and ultimately lead to better applications.

The open source model of shared, community software development is facilitated by the trend toward the componentization of software. For example, the Apple Safari browser significantly improved the browsing experience for mobile users on the iPhone. Safari relies on an open source web browser engine called WebKit (www.webkit.org) which is used in many other browsers: Safari on Mac OS X, Nokia S60, Google Chrome and others. The WebKit component improves and strengthens as it is adopted by a growing army of developers. In this way it evolves faster and passes a gauntlet of bullet-proofing. The final product is a high-quality open source component that anyone can leverage.

Webkit is nearly 700,000 lines of code written about 75% in C++, 10% in Objective C, 5% in JavaScript and 9% in five other languages. The expertise required to create something equivalent would be hard to find, but even if you could, it would require a multi-million dollar investment. For all this effort, you would still be competing on even footing with companies that download Webkit – for free.

And Webkit is only one example of many. Hundreds of thousands of software components are being developed collectively by the open source community. This includes pretty much anything you can imagine: tools, libraries, applications, stacks, frameworks, operating systems and more. Over 200 million lines of code are specifically targeted at embedded computing applications – of which mobile development is a major segment. About 41% of all open source code - over 2.3 billion lines of code - is written and freely downloadable in the C language, which is ideal for memory constrained applications - like mobile.

Small wonder that open source has completely changed the way that mobile software is being envisioned and developed.
The First Steps
Over the years, software developers around the world have created more than 1,800 releases of open source tools and applications for Palm devices, by far the most activity for any mobile platform. Despite its strength and PDA/mobile savvy, however, Palm has lost momentum to rivals.

In 2008, open source developers created 266 releases for iPhone versus 113 for Palm, despite the fact that iPhone, while certainly an international phenomenon, is not even an open source platform. iPhone has, however inspired open source developers to create a multitude of software. According to Black Duck's research, it is in the top three platforms for which mobile application developers are creating applications.

The world changed when Google announced Android, an open source mobile platform, an app store and support from hardware vendors. The developer ecosystem exploded with 191 releases of open source projects near the end of 2008. While Android is ramping slowly, 15-20 devices hitting the market in Q4 may help it grow market share from its current low single digit position - Android's unmistakable contribution is that it established the position of open source as a requirement for success in the mobile market.

The most notable vendor to respond to this trend was Nokia which sent shockwaves through the mobile and open source communities when it announced that the market-leading Symbian platform would be open sourced.
Growth Potential for Open Source in Mobile Development
Black Duck Software regularly tracks open source development in a variety of markets. The increase in the mobile development space has been of particular note.

For example, in a recent review of over 185,000 projects collected from more than 4,000 Internet sites, we found over 2,300 open source projects specifically focused on mobile platforms. The amount of code released in projects targeting mobile platforms grew at over a 55 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) over the years 2005-2008. Developers have distributed more than 6,500 project releases that target or support mobile platforms.

While the number of "mobile" projects is a small percentage of the overall total of open source projects, the growth in code for mobile devices is dramatic. Developers have released over 87 millions lines of code within the last year. Just to put this in perspective, if a company tried to replicate this feat, it would require nearly 20,000 staff years and cost in excess of $1.6B USD.
What's Next for Open Source in Mobile
While device vendors work to differentiate their hardware feature sets, the trend toward adoption of open source mobile platforms is clear. We can learn lessons from the computing space where slowly and gradually vertically integrated, proprietary systems gave way to modular systems based on standards. It's also important to remember that OS-based smartphone platforms can share commonality with other devices and systems. This is particularly true of Linux-based platforms. It is a great convenience to application developers to share tools and development know-how across mobile devices, desktop machines and servers. The need to reduce software risk and build a robust ecosystem of 3rd party developers makes open source platforms, tools and enabling components a logical choice for the leaders of the mobile industry.

While networks, devices, and platforms have traditionally garnered the attention, the future belongs to the platform that most successfully builds an ecosystem of developers who create applications that delight consumers. The best way to do that is through shared development and open source.

Eran Strod is director of product marketing for Black Duck Software, www.blackducksoftware.com, 781-891-5100.

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