An old idea about open source -- that it's all about cheap knockoffs of proprietary ideas -- has been turned on its head. Today's open source communities, where it's easy to build on the work of others without constantly seeking permission, offer the most fertile soil for seeding new ideas and growing innovation.
Among open source projects, the Ubuntu operating system in particular has shown a propensity for experimentation in this tradition. Ubuntu's parent company Canonical has a history of bold choices and innovations. As you may know, the company's vision is now broader than end-user desktop Linux; for example, Canonical announced a partnership with Hewlett-Packard last week to put Ubuntu's cloud server edition on HP's ProLiant server range. And the company is working on a variety of phone and tablet operating system ideas.
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Canonical's main offices in London to check out Ubuntu for Android. This software development opens up a new vista of lower-cost and multipurpose devices in the enterprise. By sharing the Linux kernel that's running in the phone between a full copy of Android and a full copy of Ubuntu, it's possible to carry your desktop in your pocket.
That phrase has been used before to describe thin client desktops, referring to the identity token used to access a remotely executing desktop, but in this case it's real. The full Ubuntu GNU/Linux desktop is indeed running in the phone, just waiting to be connected to a screen, keyboard, and mouse. I asked Canonical's product manager, Richard Collins, to give me this explanation and demonstration:
Richard told me that the Ubuntu for Android he showed me is a proof-of-concept, but Canonical is in negotiations with both manufacturers and carriers that might conceivably see a product on the market before the end of the year. There are many potential enhancements possible, including native Ubuntu applications that exploit the phone hardware directly and applications with both Android and Ubuntu variants that collaborate through the shared kernel and storage of the phone.
This clever idea opens up amazing alternative visions for BYOD. An employee device might gain an alternative role and capability when docked at the office, allowing full enterprise integration and data control at the same time as a fully functional and normal device experience. It doesn't have to just be for phones; tablets and laptops could also have this full dual personality. Open source already offers unprecedented flexibility, but the potential to have a single device playing multiple roles adds another dimension.
I don't think any of this would've been possible without open source. You just saw Google's Android operating system and Canonical's Ubuntu operating system hacked to work together and executing the LibreOffice desktop productivity suite. Three completely different software threads were woven together by someone with a great idea, without any need to ask permission in advance from anyone: no licensing agreements, no corporate politics, and no financial commitments beyond the innovation itself.
That would have been impossible with proprietary systems. It was Bill Joy who once pointed out it's impossible to hire all the smart people. Open source allows you to work and innovate with all the smart people. By delivering the freedoms to use, study, modify, and distribute software to anyone for any purpose, open source unlocks innovation. No wonder the 20th century's proprietary dinosaurs are scared of it and want to use patents and API copyrights to kill it!
This article, "Ubuntu and Android: A match made in open source," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.