Apple ceding open-source app market to Google?

Apple's cumbersome approval and development process may be turning open-source developers to Google Android, which could prove to be a big loss for Apple and its customers.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Whether you're an open-source advocate or not, you likely run open-source applications on your laptop or desktop. From Firefox to VLC to Handbrake to Adium, some of the best applications for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux are open source.

The iPhone, however, is a relative wasteland for open source. Should Apple care?

There's no open-source app for that.

OStatic points to four good open-source applications currently available for the iPhone, including Funambol for sync functionality and WordPress for blogging, but these are the exception to the rule. A Google search turns up others, but few that match the quality of open-source applications available on the "desktop."


It can't be a question of open-source developers shrinking from the proprietary iPhone platform. Much of the best open-source application development already happens on proprietary platforms like Mac OS X and Windows.

It's also not a question of understanding: O'Reilly and others walk open-source developers through iPhone application development.

Even so, it could well be that open-source developers have resisted the closed nature of the iPhone development and distribution process. In this, they wouldn't be alone.

First, you need a Mac to write iPhone applications. While the open-source crowd has embraced the Mac, many developers won't want to leave their Windows or Linux machines. (XMLVM could offer an alternative, as well as enabling developers to write iPhone applications in languages more familiar to them, like Java, instead of Objective C.)

Beyond hardware and programming languages, there's still the burden of running the gauntlet of Apple's application approval process. Open-source development has tended to provide unfettered playgrounds for development like SourceForge and Google Code. iPhone development is anything but unfettered.

Yes, Apple opened the door a crack to open source when it stopped requiring an NDA for development, but the door must be opened wider.

Otherwise it stands to miss out on applications like VLC, the open-source media player (which actually wouldn't likely be approved by Apple due to its competitive nature with Apple's native iPhone media player).

You can get a fork of VLC (called VLC4iPhone), but not through the official Apple App Store, and only if you jailbreak your iPhone. Few mainstream users will choose this route to install applications.

Open-source development could provide needed competition to the mostly proprietary applications that dominate the App Store. It also could supply fresh innovation.

Even fewer open-source developers will go this circuitous route to lead them there, as hinted by noted open-source luminary Doc Searls, which leaves the official App Store largely bereft of open-source applications. This is Apple's loss, and it is a loss to the general public.

Apple's iPhone browser is great, but we'd be better off if mobile Firefox gave it some competition, just as it has on the "desktop." Fring is nice, but I'd much rather have Adium running on my iPhone. And so on.

Open-source development could provide needed competition to the mostly proprietary applications that dominate the App Store. It also could supply fresh innovation.

CNET has reported that iPhone users and Google Android users have much in common in terms of their usage patterns and demographics. Their developer audiences, however, are increasingly different, and that's to Apple's hurt, especially as Android grows in market share.

Android, after all, stands to scoop up a significant swath of mainstream users by attracting both proprietary and open-source application development, while Apple's iPhone predominately serves the proprietary software set. That's the bulk of the market, to be sure, but it stifles the experimentation and innovation that open-source developers could be bringing to Apple's iconic iPhone.

Does Apple care?

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