Who killed Sony SNAP?

Sony flirted with brilliance when it announced an open source platform for consumer electronics. So why did it pull the project days later?

Sony's SNAP (Sony Networked Application Platform) developer program, unveiled last week, showed a lot of promise. Using the open source GnuStep framework as its starting point, the SNAP project aimed to build a next-generation applications platform for modern consumer electronics devices, including advanced support for touchscreen displays and 3D graphics. Best of all, Sony said it would develop SNAP with the full involvement of the independent developer community, using developer feedback to hone and improve the framework into "something unique and powerful."

Developers welcomed Sony's news with keen interest. After all, Sony is hardly a company known for its openness. In the past, it clung to proprietary Sony technologies such as Betamax, MiniDisc, and Memory Stick long after the rest of the market had standardized on more open equivalents. The decision to base a new developer initiative on well-known open source technologies might have signaled a change in direction for one of the world's largest computer and electronics makers.

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No such luck, as it turns out. No sooner had Sony announced the SNAP program, the company withdrew it again. Just days after the initial announcement, Sony updated the program's Web page to read, "SNAP development is currently on hold. Please stay tuned for more details." So far, no further details have emerged and Sony has made no statement regarding its apparent change of heart.

Why did Sony put the brakes on SNAP? It has all the makings of a real developer whodunit.

All because of one bad Apple?
Apple could be one culprit. The goal of the GnuStep Project, upon which SNAP is based, is to create an open source clone of Apple's Cocoa APIs and tools. As a result, SNAP developers would program in Objective-C, Apple's pet language, and code written for Sony's platform would likely look very similar to code written for the iPhone, iPad, and other Apple iOS devices. Porting apps between the two platforms would be easier than between any other competing platforms -- and that can't make Apple very happy.

Apple dropped the word "computer" from its name in 2007, and it's easy to see why: The Apple of today is very much a consumer electronics company. According to its most recent 10-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, in 2010 Apple earned more than twice as much from sales of iPods, iPhones, iPads, and music-related products and services than it earned from Mac desktops and portables combined. That puts Apple in head-to-head competition with Sony, and on many fronts Apple is winning. (Remember when the word for a portable music player was "Walkman"?)

Apple is also very protective of its developer ecosystem. Although it has somewhat loosened its rules recently, Apple is notorious for shutting out alternative developer platforms from its iOS devices, including Java and Flash. If you want to build software for Apple devices, you play by Apple's rules and develop with Apple's tools. Now Sony seems to want to go the other way -- it wants to borrow Apple's tools and use them on its own platform. But if Apple doesn't want Adobe appropriating its iOS developer base, why should Sony get away with it?

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