The Tizen smartphone flopped -- and open source is to blame

A parade of failed open source smartphone OSes should cause the open source community to rethink its mobile strategy

You know the saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Now that Samsung has "indefinitely" delayed the launch of its first Tizen smartphone, can anyone believe any more open source mobile promises?

Open source mobile efforts have a history of failure: Moblin, Maemo, MeeGo, and Tizen are all examples that have been shepherded into oblivion by the Linux Foundation and an assembly of vendors. Canonical's Ubuntu Touch, Mozilla's Firefox OS, and Jolla's Sailfish (derived from MeeGo) all seem to be following similar trajectories to nowhere.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Hands on with the Tizen-powered Samsung Z. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobilize newsletter. ]

Most open source mobile efforts haven't been that serious
The open source Tizen OS has been delayed many times over the last three years, bouncing from Nokia to Intel to Samsung and apparently not going anywhere despite all that movement. Its current mission is to power devices in the Internet of things, which is everything's mission these days. It's an easy aspiration in which to hide a sputtering project.

A year ago, Canonical made a lot of noise about its Ubuntu Touch open source OS, with promises of smartphones in early 2014 -- but the phones haven't appeared. More telling, the Ubuntu Touch material on the Canonical's website is woefully out of date (shipping in late 2013? -- uh uh) or furiouslty backpedaling on when the first smartphones will supposedly ship, and Ubuntu Touch was nowhere on the agenda at last week's OSCON open source conference, which a year ago trumpeted the Canonical mobile OS.

The Sailfish effort seems more of a hobby by former Nokia engineers who can't let go of their MeeGo ambitions. It's all about aspiration, not devices. Or progress.

If any of these open source smartphones has a shot in the market, it's the Mozilla Firefox OS, which is available on real devices in several countries from Alcatel, Hauwei, LG, and ZTE. They don't show up in any market surveys or mobile Web traffic surveys, so sales are very tiny. But at least there are real Firefox OS smartphones in the wild.

What is it about the mobile world that has led to the parade of open source OSes that go nowhere? There are several reasons, which combine in varying degrees for each project.

One reason, I believe, is that these are treated as hobbyist engineering projects, not commercial endeavors. Volunteers (often unpaid) end up doing much of the work, so it becomes about them. That seems to be the issue at Sailfish and Canonical (whose desktop Linux ambitions have also sputtered). The open source community usually sees major fragmentation and stalling-out as a result of this "what I want" reality. We tend to forget that the vast majority of open source efforts go nowhere. When the community comes together under strong leadership, amazing things can happen. But that's a relatively rare occurrence, especially for a project as complex as a mobile OS.

But, you may say, Tizen and its Linux Foundation predecessors all had big-name companies behind them, so the leadership and funding has been there to treat the open source effort with corporate leadership. However, these big-name companies all are treating the open source OSes as backup bets, not as serious efforts. Intel, for example, missed the boat in mobile a decade ago, so it has dabbled -- and only dabbled -- in every platform that came after the iPhone to try to break in. Intel is a chip company at heart, not a maker of finished devices.

Half a decade ago, Nokia had nothing to replace its dying Symbian OS, but with their heads firmly buried in the sand, Nokia's execs couldn't accept the end of Symbian, so Maemo, MeeGo, and Tizen never got serious attention at the company. Instead, these projects saw a lot of press releases, then were spun out to an external organization, brought back in, and finally discarded. (Even Symbian bounced between company ownership and open source stewardship, a clear sign of Nokia's clueless management.) Nokia ultimately adopted Windows Phone, only to be bought and later gutted by Microsoft. For years, its management simply grasped at a series of straws, both open source and proprietary.

A couple years ago, Samsung dropped its Bada OS for Tizen to save money by getting Intel to help foot the development bill. Today, the two companies remain the major powers behind Tizen. But it was clear at the recent Tizen Developers Conference that neither company is serious about Tizen. For Intel, it's yet another mobile effort.

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