Where are all the open-source mobile developers?

If mobile computing is the future, open-source developers are effectively writing themselves out of it with their continued focus on server and desktop environments.

Even as Google and other technology companies bet big on mobile computing, open-source developers seem to be fixated with "desktop" and server environments. If the future is mobile, why isn't this where open-source developers are focusing?

To be fair, some are. There are a few open-source applications for the iPhone, including WordPress and Doom Classic, and others like Shelves for Google's Android. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.

And, yes, we have important open-source platform projects like Android, Funambol, etc., but there are relatively few, particularly in the area of applications.

This is a bit disconcerting given statements like Google CEO Eric Schmidt's: "The answer should always be mobile first." If Google, Apple, etc., see mobile as their first priority, can open source afford to put mobile last?

A search for "mobile" on the popular open-source code repository Sourceforge.net, for example, returns 2,432 projects. That sounds like a lot, until you remember that there are 180,000-plus projects hosted on Sourceforge, most of them for "desktop" and server environments.

Google Code has others, but, again, it's a fraction of the total number of projects.

Perhaps it's a matter of open-source developers focusing on broad, horizontal markets with a common, x86 chip architecture. The mobile world has been fragmented for so long that even leading open-source organizations like Mozilla have historically struggled to know where to invest their mobile engineering resources. (Firefox originally appeared on Nokia's Maemo platform , moved to Windows Mobile, and is in early development for Android.)

Guess what? Proprietary software developers have the same challenge, and it's not stopping them from plowing ahead.

Or perhaps there simply aren't enough open-source developers with interest and aptitude in mobile? I find this hard to believe. Open source works for operating systems, for example, because every open-source developer needs them. Similarly, I'm willing to bet every open-source developer carries a phone and many of them would have both the propensity and ability to hack them.

Unless the open-source world wants to play catch-up to proprietary platforms and applications again as it did on the 'desktop' and server, then open-source developers need to start focusing on mobile in the same way Google and others are. Rabidly. Intensively. Now.

So let's do it. The fragmented mobile world is actually a perfect environment for open-source development, as I've written before . With great platforms like iPhone and particularly Android available, there really is no good excuse for continuing to ignore the mobile opportunity.

About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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