Does open source need corporate backing to succeed?

Android is one of the most successful projects in the open-source world, but that’s mostly because of Google’s “muscle”, according to one researcher.

Does open source need corporate backing to succeed?

Liz Laffan, an analyst at VisionMobile, has attempted to measure the “openness” of several open-source software platforms – ranking Google’s OS in last place.

“Despite the widespread use of open source, from Android to WebKit, there is one very important aspect that has been neglected: openness and how to measure it,” she said in an EU-sponsored report.

“In today’s world of commercially-led mobile open-source projects, it is not enough to understand the open-source licence used by a project,” she argued. “It is the governance model that makes the difference between an ‘open’ and a ‘closed’ project.”

It is the governance model that makes the difference between an ‘open’ and a ‘closed’ project

That governance includes aspects such as access to code, developer power, and the strength of the community. “We have attempted to quantify openness by understanding how decisions are made with regard to the project,” she told PC Pro. “Over time no doubt we will refine our criteria and there may be more appropriate metrics identified for openness, but we believe that this is a good starting point to understanding openness in open-source projects.”

Measuring openness

She admitted it’s difficult to compare such disparate projects as Mozilla, Android and WebKit, but said: “just like organisations can be big or small and have different cultures and processes, there are still ways to measure their financial success and identify their culture.”

“Mozilla is unique in that it is the only project that created an organisation to manage its codebase. Android is also unique in that Google has hundreds of developers working on the project. WebKit is unique in that it has successfully managed a number of high-profile organisational contributors such as Apple, Nokia, Google, RIM and Palm,” she said. “But we believe that you can still compare the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of the open-source project – which is what we have tried to do.”

With that in mind, by Laffan’s reckoning, Android ranks last out of the eight top open-source projects examined, with a 23% openness score. Eclipse – a software development environment – was the highest ranked, with an 84% score, followed by Linux, WebKit and Mozilla.

VisionMobile Chart

While she praised Androids’s simple contributions system and its multi-million dollar awards to encourage developers, Laffan criticised Google’s tight control of the product roadmap and what code is used, saying there was a lack of transparency around the project.

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