Libreplanet, Android, Funambol, Symbian, Ubuntu, Gnome, Mozilla and more at OSCON

OSCON 2009 was as good as I thought it would be. This year there was no mobile specific track but lots of talks about cloud computing. I met very interesting people, attaching faces and voices to email addresses and identi.ca accounts. The BoF about mobile cloud gave me the chance to discuss ideas with Andy Oram and other smart people and I’ll start developing them in the next few months.

Award winning Evan Prodromou and other identi.ca folks liked the idea of integrating the FoaF network in your mobile and desktop addressbook. With Bradley Kuhn and others of FSF Libreplanet we talked about the free software version of the Android OS. Some people are already working to liberate the radio drivers (GSM and wi-fi) in order to have a fully free kernel while many applications are already free as in freedom. The group is also interested in the Funambol syncml client because that adds more autonomy for the user.

The session by Stormy Peters gave me a few ideas for Funambol community that I’ll start implementing as soon as next week (watch Twitter and identi.ca for announcements). We also talked about Funambol as a provider of grants for Gnome projects. With Louis Suarez-Potts we talked about code hosting platforms and ways for the Funambol and OpenOffice.org community to collaborate.

The Ubuntu team gave very interesting presentations. I talked with UbuntuOne developer Stuart Langridge about syncing data (see his presentation): I loved to hear about integrating CouchDB with Kontact/Akonadi and GNOME Evolution.  I followed also the presentations about Launchpad: interesting, especially the license, but I’ll have to dive deeper in it. I joined the Symbian Foundation workshop where I learned that Symbian^1, used in the latest handsets, has a Python interpreter installed by default. Sounds cool especially since it has less limitations than the Java VM.

The presentation of Mozilla Thunderbird 3 gave me hope that there can be an email client that doesn’t suck! And it was fun to follow Mako’s talk about ‘Antifeatures‘. The SourceForge Community Awards party was great, with free drinks, music, entertainment, a r/c car that runs on walls and tatoos. Great to be there, hope to repeat next year.

Mobile Cloud Computing, Part II: Where do We go From Here?

Mobile cloud is going to be big, according to a study published by ABI research. And they’re not the only ones to say so.

In this second part of my thoughts about mobile cloud — which I hope we can all talk about at OSCON — I’ll try to find answers to this question: as a developer commited to free-as-in-freedom software, what would you need to do to get started?

In this who’s who in mobile open source, Funambol and Volantis are shown as the only companies offering service delivery platforms, demonstrating that there are many ways to develop free software applications but only a few solutions to build open mobile services with.

Linux support packages Wind River (also one of the most prominent integrators for mobile Linux stacks), MontaVista
Operating systems for feature phones: Purple Labs; for smartphones: Azingo, Access Linux Platform, A la Mobile, OpenMoko; for MIDs: Intel Moblin, Ubuntu Mobile. Also OKL4 is virtualisation (hypervisor) software for mobile phones.
Middleware GNOME’s GTK+ and related projects (e.g. D-Bus, Gstreamer), the graphics subsystem of Nokia’s Qt and the db4o database engine.
Application environments Google’s Android, Nokia’s Maemo, Nokia’s Qt, Eclipse eRCP, Sun’s Java phone ME, Motorola’s Java MIDP3, AOL’s Open Mobile Platform and Nokia’s Web Runtime
Browsers Apple’s WebKit (on the verge of becoming a de facto standard for web-centric service delivery) and Firefox Mobile
Service deliv. platforms Funambol (consumer email sync), Volantis (content adaptation)
Development tools Eclipse Foundation (manages the Eclipse IDE, used as the basis for Nokia’s Carbide, Wind River tools and many others). Plus RhoMobile – a new set of open source developer tools for creating connected enterprise apps on smartphones.
Industry initiatives Symbian Foundation (EPL license), Open Handset Alliance (APL2 license), LiMo Foundation (open source as it builds on top of Linux), GNOME Mobile and Embedded (LGPL-licensed GTK+ and related software)

On the other hand, proprietary mobile services are blossoming everywhere. Funambol recently listed and reviewed 11 mobile cloud sync services, from Apple MobileMe to Vodafone Zyb.

A minimum requirement are interoperable services implementing open standards, because users’ data must be preserved at all costs. Proprietary walled gardens create small monopolies that sometimes grow big and take away personal data from the users. Two recent cases demonstrated that users of mobile cloud services are exposed to serious problems: one with Amazon Kindle and the other with Palm Pre. Both are mobile devices, both rely on mobile cloud services for most of their usefulness. Kindle users that buy electronic books are realizing that they don’t end up owning anything and Amazon can too easily prevent users from enjoying the books they’ve bought.  The other disturbing news story reports that Palm Pre owners cannot access the music that they bought and stored in Apple’s iTunes: Apple still wants to own the music it sold its users and keep their data hostage.  I think these are just a visible signal of  proprietary services battling to own the users’ data.  If Kindle and iTunes used interoperable and open standards, which could be safely implemented in free/libre open source software, their users would not face much of these problems.

The pure mobile service frameworks available for freedom conscious developers are Funambol, which offers push notification, synchronization and device management, and Volantis, which offers content adaptation to mobile browsers. Rhomobile is another options, a mix between a development tool and a service delivery platform. Funambol is fully based on the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) open standards Data Synchronization and Device Management, therefore services built with Funambol can easily respect users’ rights. The server aspect is complemented by the Java and C++ SDKs to develop native mobile applications for the devices. Rhomobile is based on Ruby and can be used to develop applications that act as being native but use the local web browser.

While Funambol and Rhomobile in theory can be used to develop free as in freedom mobile cloud services, there is still one big issue to solve: locked down devices. Network operators don’t want the users to be too free so almost all of them prevent users to run applications that are not digitally signed. RIM, Apple and to some extent also Symbian devices are all locked down, which renders users’ freedom in the mobile cloud a balancing act: on one hand a developer needs to obey the rules dictated by network operators and device manufacturers; on the other hand the same developer needs to find ways to deliver freedom to the users. In Funambol’s case, for example, the official iPhone client can only sync contacts because the official Apple SDK only allows that. Nonetheless, Funambol client for iPhone can sync also calendar accessing directly the sqlite database, but such version cannot run on the device unless it is unlocked (breaking Apple’s warranty).

This is only scratches the surface of the mobile cloud services for the freedom-concerned developers and users.  There are further issues to talk about, including:

  • device management,
  • how to push software updates to the devices,
  • security of data (since people tend to lose their phones),
  • how to keep data secure while transfering.

The free software movement should take the lead to address and solve these issues. I hope we can spark the discussion at OSCON. I’ll be available all days ping me any time. Follow me on identi.ca or twitter.

The cost of monopoly in the cloud

Reading of the latest cyber attacks against South Korea and USA digital systems, I remembered a rather old post from Gen Kanai @Mozilla, the cost of a monoculture. It’s about monopoly, government decisions and security in the cloud.

[South Korea] is also a unique monoculture where 99.9% of all the computer users are on Microsoft Windows.

The post tells what is happening in the country since the South Korean government decided that the whole digital infrastructure of the nation would have to depend on non standard technology and ended up with only one IT supplier. That was a really bad choice that may have made the whole country vulnerable to become a base for large scale cyber attacks.

Whether or not South Korean computers will be destroyed today (it seems that they are), the point that should be clear is that the ‘cloud’ is not a virtual environment, but it’s part of everybody’s life. Government decisions on technical issues have tremendous impact and real open standards should be mandated. With so many more mobile phones than computers, the mobile cloud must have its own standards in order to avoid monopoly and the cost associated with it. If you’re interested in the discussion about mobile cloud come to the free BoF session at OSCON2009.

via Mozilla in Asia » Blog Archive » the cost of monoculture.

Google plans to own you. More.

Finally Google revealed its plans to enter the operating system market. The first thing that comes to mind are chairs flying in Microsoft offices 🙂 The other thing comes from this statement:

“All Web-based applications will automatically work and new applications can be written using your favorite Web technologies,” the company said.

It means cloud computing, the kind that makes desktop computers a dumb terminal. Since Google OS will target highly portable devices like netbooks, the issues of mobile cloud computing gain importance. I hope you’ll join the birds of a feather session at OSCON I’m coordinating to discuss what the free software movement can bring to mobile cloud computing.

via Google Plans a PC Operating System – NYTimes.com.

Thoughts on mobile cloud computing

Mobile cloud computing represents an opportunity for the free/libre open source software movement that is just as big and radical as cloud computing, maybe even moreso. This is part 1 of a post about it, part 2 will follow shortly.

By the end of 2009, 4 billion people will use mobile phones. By 2013, that number is projected to grow to 6 billion. That is many times the number of personal computer users. By definition, mobile phones that access the internet are performing mobile cloud computing: handsets need to borrow storage and computing power from the cloud because of their limited resources.

Just as Free/Libre Open Source Software played a major role in the growth of the Internet and cloud computing, sparking issues about openness and freedom, the Free Software movement has the potential to provide a similar yet different impact on mobile cloud computing.

To mitigate the power of the cloud computing vendors and reduce the risk of lock-in the free/libre software community and proprietary vendors are discussing policies and proposing standards. Various communities, from Open Cloud Manifesto to Autonomo.us think-tank, are searching ways to guarantee interoperability, security, privacy for users of the cloud services.

Mobile cloud services have similar issues, although the expected impact on the users is different. While a desktop user has the option to keep pictures in the cloud, on services like Flickr or use local storage, mobile user’s choice is limited by the device form factor.  Even if mobile devices are not exactly ‘dumb’ terminals, but they’re not ‘super-smart’ either. Usually the applications are resident on the device, but not all of the user’s data or the computing power can fit in there.  Therefore mobile cloud servicese ‘lend’ computing power to the handset when it connects to the service, which then can continue working ‘disconnected’. For example, a phone can use extra storage from the cloud for multimedia files, like pics or music. The mobile cloud service can then push to the device a special music playlist for a running workout when it’s needed.

Mobile cloud services are largely dominated by vendor specific walled gardens, and debate is not as intense as the numbers of cell phone users would suggest. Probably this is due to the fact that not only Free Software powered mobile phones are not easy to find, but also installing new software on phones was not an option for the mass market until recently. Now, after iPhone and with more and more ‘application stores’ emerging, the issue of mobile users’ freedom is showing up: billions of new handset users have the issue of freedom for the software on the device and freedom in the mobile cloud.

The Free Software community has to step in the mobile cloud debate or a large piece of digital citizens will not be able to enjoy the benefits that free software has brought to larger computer users.  The mobile cloud is pretty much an open territory where many vendors are already fighting to lock-in their users.

The birds of a feather session at OSCON is devoted to the idea of “open mobile” cloud computing. Some of the questions that we can discuss include:

  • What is open mobile cloud computing and what does it mean?
  • What components, solutions, technology, ecosystem and standards are involved?
  • What provisions are needed to safeguard everyone’s rights?
  • What tools are already available to build free as in freedom mobile cloud services?

If you would like to participate in this birds of a feather session @OSCON or this discussion, please contact me.