Making Open-Source Software Free and Fabulous

Apple's June 7 launch of the iPhone 4 again raised the computer industry's bar for what a compelling product should be. Among the billion or so Internet-connected devices in use, mobile products shape technology markets the most, and Apple is clearly in the lead.

While Microsoft (MSFT) has been relegated to an also-ran in mobile computing, Linux has emerged as the main challenger to Apple (AAPL). Companies including Nokia (NOK), Sony (SNE), Samsung, and Panasonic (PC) use Linux as the basis of many of their products. Linux underpins Google's (GOOG) Android smartphone operating system and Chrome OS for PCs; Intel (INTC) and Nokia's MeeGo mobile operating system; and Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) newly acquired WebOS from Palm (PALM).

We're moving to a tech world with Apple on one side and virtually everyone else on the other. Linux needs to more effectively compete with Steve Jobs and the magic of Apple. It's important that open-source products add more value for users than simply being free. Open-source software also needs to be fabulous.

User Experience Priority

Cryptic commands and poor user interfaces have typified Linux since it exploded in popularity among techies in the 1990s. That's understandable in the server markets where Linux holds sway. Providing a good user experience isn't paramount under the white lights of the data center.

In consumer electronics, it's a different story. Mobile Linux vendors must increase their technical investments by working on key open-source projects to make every component used in Linux devices benefit the user experience. That includes making devices boot up faster, connect better, and display graphics more smoothly. In the server market, IBM (IBM) made the investments to improve Linux for information technology workers a decade ago. The mobile industry uniting behind Linux should do the same.

The mobile industry has embraced Linux to address the dual challenge of more expensive development and rapid obsolescence. It costs more to produce compelling user experiences, yet the time in the market that vendors have to monetize their investments is shrinking.

One answer is shared development. Open-source, free software enables lower research and development costs and faster time to market. When one company solves a technical hurdle, all companies can benefit, yet still differentiate themselves through their applications. Apple doesn't provide that flexibility.

Apple's control of its chips, system software, and App Store relegates other companies to commodities. It gives a single vendor a disproportionate amount of profit.

Yet the hardware vendors, software developers, and network operators that create mobile computing devices are interdependent—look at iPhone users' ire at AT&T's (T) inability to keep up with their bandwidth demands. Apple and other device makers want more bandwidth available for their products, but creating it requires expensive investments in spectrum, system upgrades, and new cellular sites.

Linux's Opportunity

Linux, by being truly open, lets hardware vendors and network operators offer an attractive code base that they can build their own applications and services on top of to more equally balance profits. Those include app stores, online music services, and add-on hardware.

Does Linux have a shot at challenging Apple's dominance? We've seen this movie before. There was an Apple of the business computing market not so long ago. Sun Microsystems' high-end servers made the company a darling of information technology departments, Internet startups, and Wall Street investors in the late '90s and 2000. Linux was the underdog. A decade later, Sun no longer exists and Linux and Windows rule the data center.

The control and flexibility that hardware vendors and network operators gain with Linux, plus the ability to share research and development costs and move faster, make Linux a powerful choice for mobile computing development. The computer industry is seeing a seismic shift wherein longtime Microsoft partners such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard are making huge bets on Linux, relegating Windows to a lesser role. This was inconceivable a decade ago.

Apple has set a high bar, no doubt. But if you don't believe Linux can beat an entrenched market leader, just ask the folks who used to run Sun.

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