Is it right to complain about all of the nice elves at Google who work all night to add new features to the Android stack just because outsiders don't have much of a say in what the elves do? We're all free to fork the code even if this cuts us off from Google's approval.
Issues like this expose just how dependent the open source projects are upon revenue from other sources, usually hardware sales. Sun made its money from selling servers, and it often excused open source as a way to make the servers more desirable. Oracle has always embraced many hardware platforms, and it's not clear that Sun's legacy hardware business can grow very much. Google is driven by advertising revenue, and perhaps the Android phones exist to ensure that Google can continue to remain useful when people use their phones to access the Web.
When open source advocates proudly talk about programmers who are paid to contribute, they're often talking about programmers who are paid by hardware companies. Most of the Linux kernel development is supported by the hardware companies. The kernel developers may be coveted by these chip manufacturers who want to be sure that they can keep some of the Linux market, but the developers are nothing more than mercenaries. Open source licenses pretty much ensure that the developers will remain ronin, the Japanese word for samurai who wander from warlord to warlord looking for a paycheck.
Indeed, Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility prompted many to note that Android's openness was limiting its success. Controlling the hardware and gaining the revenues from selling it is one easy way to support open source developers. Now Google will be able to earn something beyond nebulous ad revenues from the sale of an Android phone.
Linux and the other big open source projects stand in a strange place. They've achieved great influence and taken over larger and larger shares of the computing memespace, but they've never achieved the traditional economic power wielded by kings of proprietary software like Larry Ellison and Bill Gates.
This, of course, was always the point. Open source was to win the hearts and minds of the programmers by making everyone a full partner in the code. The trouble is that making everyone a full partner destroys the easiest lever for strong-arming the users into paying for the development.
Thus, open source both succeeds and fails because of its openness. No one has found a way around the essential weaknesses, but that's not always a problem -- no one has found a way to block the strengths either.
Bossie 2011 winners:
Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source software of the year
Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source applications
Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source desktop and mobile software
Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source application development software
Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source data center and cloud software
This article, "Bossie Awards 2011: The best open source software of the year," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.
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