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Open sourcing the mobile web with Goo...err, Volantis

Volantis just opened up 1.2 million lines of code that could liberate the mobile world.

There's been a flurry of excitement about open source in the mobile world in the past few weeks, what with Google's Open Handset Alliance and its associated Android software platform. In all the hype (some deserved, some not), people seem to have forgotten one Very Big Problem in mobile:

There is a huge array of different hardware and software specifications.

Google's Android solves the software specification problem (at least, for those phones that end up using it), but it does nothing to resolve the wider compatibility problem for mobile developers. Developing for the Android platform may make sense five years from now, but it's a losing (market) proposition until it gains widespread adoption.

Which is why Volantis' decision to open source its framework is such a positive thing for the mobile world:

Volantis Systems, which provides the Intelligent Content Adaptation? software delivering mobile content to more than 250 million mobile phone users worldwide, today eliminated price as a barrier to entry for companies that would like to capitalize on Volantis solutions to deliver content to mobile users. The Volantis Mobility Server is available immediately as a free download, and in the first quarter of 2008, Volantis will release the product under the GNU General Public License (GPL), version three, in the process contributing 1.2 million lines of code, based on seven years of development, to the community....

"Our view, as the leading technology provider in the space, is that the development of the mobile Internet is being held back by lack of access, for enterprises and developers, to the right software - software which can automatically adapt to the complexity of the non-PC device world, and which can scale to support sites and applications as they become successful, across the market and across the world," said Mark Watson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Volantis Systems. "That's why we've decided to contribute our technology to the community - to eliminate cost as a barrier to entry - and why we are inviting the community to help us build on what Volantis has developed. We believe that for every potential web application in the PC world, there is going to be a mobile equivalent. There's no way that Volantis, on its own, can hope to build out all those applications. The only answer is to set the software, and the developer community, and for that matter the mobile Internet, free."

Indeed. If ever there was a market where community was central to success, it's the mobile world with its array of devices and software platforms. Volantis' software enables a company to build its content once and deploy it to any mobile device. AT&T, CBS, 3, eBay, Discovery Channel, Disney, Reuters, Orange, IBM, and others are customers of Volantis' mobile web technology.

But what about Google? Now that Google has shifted its heft to the mobile world, is there any room for anyone else? Absolutely. Google has done some very cool things with mobile (I use Google Search, Maps, SMS, and other services daily on my BlackBerry), but there are some open questions about its approach.

The user interface (UI), for one. Apple can control the UI since it has tight integration between its hardware and software. With Google the handsets can continue to diverge. It's difficult to innovate an advanced UI when Google won't control the industrial engineering on the hardware. Hence, presumably the software is going to have to work with lots of different possible hardware configurations, which means it must remain somewhat "lowest-common denominator.

Google's Android platform is really nothing more than a vague software specification at this point, if that. Andy Rubin who runs the project was the guy behind Danger's Sidekick, which had a very specific UI tied to the device, so it's not easy to extrapolate how this one will look. Has he learned to generalize the UI experience? It's unclear.

What would be uber-cool would be to have Google work with Volantis to improve the Android platform with Volantis' technology. That would have serious, global ramifications for the mobile content world.

In the meantime, Android is nice, but for 99.999% of the planet that needs content on all those other software/hardware combinations, Volatnis' open-source solution is a great way to go.

Disclosure: I am an advisor to Volantis.