Over the last several months, we've seen indications of a good faith effort by Hewlett-Packard to become a positive contributor to the open source software development community, in the form of a commitment by the company to release their webOS operating system as open source under the Apache license.
We all know why HP went the open source route, because it couldn't find anyone willing to purchase the webOS and Palm assets for a price that came even close to what they paid for it in 2010.
HP spent approximately 1.2 billion dollars on the acquisition, and the only thing they had to show for it was a fiasco of a product launch, two failed CEOs, thousands of layoffs, Wall Street angst and hundreds of thousands of liquidated TouchPads.
So the alternative was to try to build a future ecosystem for the software, in the hopes that continued development under an Open Source model might spark new products and new uses for webOS.
Everyone in the open source community, myself included, is excited about the prospects of a "alternative" open source mobile operating system. We're happy that HP is joining our extended family.
But HP still has a lot to learn about community relations and enticing developers to work with their code.
- Also Read: HP webOS open source begins -- what next?
I was more than a bit disappointed to hear that at their Global Partner Conference this week in Las Vegas, HP's President and CEO, Meg Whitman, had decided to use what amounts to old-school trash talk in order to bolster further interest in webOS.
"We decided to contribute webOS to the open source community and this will take three to four years to play out". "I think there is room for another operating system. iOS is great but it is a closed system. I think that Android may end up as a closed system because of [Google's] relationship with Motorola."
We call this type of trash talk Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. Also affectionately known as FUD.
Now, one could argue that Whitman was simply speaking off the cuff to a captive audience and didn't really think about what she was saying at the time.
However, anyone who knows anything about the history of open source contributions by dozens of corporate entities would find this accusation that Google would reneg on its commitments, after demonstrating so many years of leadership in this space to be laughable.
Heck, Google close-sourcing Android on a permanent basis would be suicidal for the platform. Much of the reason why Android is attractive to developers in the first place is because of its open source nature.
Before HP can accuse Google of the possibility that it may close source one of its most important open source efforts, one must examine the open source track record of both companies and how they compare to their industry peers.
First, besides the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) which is probably Google's most high-profile open source project, there is also Chromium, the open source version of the Chrome browser, which has quickly become one of the most popular web browsers used on the Internet on multiple computing platforms. And of course Chrome OS.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Google has, through its Google Code initiative, released over 20 million lines of source code through over 900 open source projects. As such, it is one of the largest contributors of its own code to the community, not to mention being a direct contributor to a number of 3rd-party open source projects.
Google also hosts approximately 250,000 3rd-party open source projects under Google Project Hosting and has sponsored the Summer of Code program since 2005, in order to foster open source contributions by student developers aged 18 and older.
So if you really examine Google's open source efforts closely, it's hard to see anything other than the company being a model community citizen and taking a continued leadership role in Open Source.
So why would Whitman say such a ridiculous statement given Google's impeccable track record? Perhaps because she wanted to play on the fears that the last time that Google had a major Android release, Honeycomb, it withheld the source code from the community and distributed it only to its OEM device manufacturers, until the successive release, Ice Cream Sandwich.
I have no defense at all for what Google did. Like many Open Source advocates, I was appalled by it and a lot of other industry folks were extremely concerned when it happened.
Google claims to have its reasons for doing it, and although it has never made completely clear what those reasons were, many in the community believe it was done as a stopgap effort to prevent further platform fragmentation until Ice Cream Sandwich, which would unify the smartphone and tablet code bases could be released.
So yes, Google screwed up with Honeycomb, and they probably should have made their intentions much clearer about what they were trying to accomplish.
Google's lazziez-faire and somewhat disjointed approach to its handling of the Android project has raised numerous concerns about platform fragmentation, particularly by vendors that have modified it for use in their own products and haven't addressed user concerns to update them with the latest code base.
Android has also been subject to actual forking efforts by companies like Amazon which simply take the code and use it for their own purposes (such as in the Kindle Fire) without actually participating in the overall community itself.
But at the end of the day, the proof is in the code, and the company has demonstrated that Android as an open source project is very much alive and well, as can be seen from the release of Ice Cream Sandwich to the AOSP back in December.
But what of HP's own Open Source history?
HP has, in the last 10 years, contributed and sponsored various open source projects but primarily only those which directly benefit the use of their own hardware platforms, with very few exceptions.
It should be noted, however, that HP's overall contributions in the last five years have slowed down considerably compared to where they were about ten years ago.
Quite a few HP-sponsored projects on the aforementioned list are small and have low participation and maintenance rates, with the exception of Apache, Samba and CUPS, which are large, cross-vendor sponsored projects.
As a Linux Kernel code contributor, HP was among the least active of companies that had board of director seats on the Linux Foundation.
In 2009, the last time statistics were released by the Linux Foundation about code commits, the company didn't even make the top 12 list. As far as kernel participation, HP was a statistical anomaly compared to the others.
It should also be noted HP does not currently officially occupy a board seat on that not for profit organization (of which it was a founding member) which is considered among the most important in the Open Source community.
Since its participation in the founding of the Linux Foundation, HP's Platinum member status has since been demoted to Gold, which puts it at the same contribution level as AMD, Cisco, Motorola, and yes, Google.
The last time HP actually contributed a major piece of code that could be considered hardware or platform agnostic to the community at large is when it announced its donation of the AdvFS (Advanced File System) from DEC's legacy Tru64 UNIX under GPLv2 on the SourceForge web site back in 2008.
webOS would be the first major release of code from the company in a number of years that can be considered to be completely hardware-agnostic or does not directly benefit HP in some manner.
The current plan, according to HP, is over the coming months, to release various components that comprise webOS, with a full platform release that is due in September.
If all goes according to plan, developers will have a full open webOS code release to play with at the end of the summer, and then there will (hopefully) be device ports and all sorts of good things that come with an initial major open source mobile OS release of that sort.
But until then, HP really needs to stop talking trash about other members of our community and instead learn from their example. And show us the source.
Does HP's use of FUD against Google reflect well on its own open source track record? Talk Back and Let Me Know.