Will Open Source Undermine Walled Gardens?

Open vs. Walled – let the best win.

Recently in Boston, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was pushing a theme that is dear to many of us. The Mobile Web should grow with open standards. The Walled Garden approach should be abandoned.

The mobile Internet needs to be fully and completely the Internet, nothing more and nothing less. It needs to be free of central control, universal, and embodied in open standards.

The “walled garden” is the metaphor that describes today’s cable TV and cellular data networks, where subscribers can only use devices authorized by the carrier, and can only access content and services authorized by the carrier, the exact opposite of the World Wide Web running over the IP-based Internet, which cell phone users can access from their home and work PCs.

Exhortations are fine but surprisingly he did not mention Google’s initiative with the Open Handset Alliance. Google’s Android project, based as it is on the Open Source approach, should be a powerful de-stabilizer of those walled gardens. Michael Mace, like many others, seems to be excited by what the Android project offers. The $10 million Android challenge announced by Steve Horowitz, Google’s Engineering Director, should be an additional incentive.

Rob Domanski is also excited. He quotes a Wired article that states, “Lockdowns on hardware functionality, demanded by service providers and enforced by the manufacturers, have resulted in a marketplace filled with crippled devices that are only minimally configurable or expandable”. This means that innovation suffers and both the consumer and the mobile industry itself miss out on some serious Mobile Web opportunities. He is concerned that Google’s initiative uses the more restrictive version of open-source as adopted by Apache, rather than the more open GPL, which covers Linux and GNU software. However this is unlikely to save the walled gardens to any great extent.

It would be surprising if everyone welcomed Android. There is perhaps no surprise that Microsoft and Yahoo! are at this point somewhat cool to the project. Frank Pasquale has a different concern about Google’s Open-Source initiatives. Given that the associated ad revenues could be enormous, Google and others will try to make their applications so attractive that no one will want to try anything else. Who could quibble with success? Those wouldn’t be walled gardens.


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