When Open Source Attacks
Written by Mike James   
Friday, 05 October 2012

Generally speaking you have to feel good about open source. However, there have been some recent cases in which open source projects are being used against the companies that sponsor them. And this really does not seem a fair way to play.

Generally speaking you have to feel good about open source. It is amazing that people will work on projects for the love of it. It is even more amazing when big companies get involved. The idea is that open source enables them to build things that would have otherwise taken much more effort and they get benefits like community support and a general feel good factor.

Recently the feel good factor has been a little tarnished as a new phenomena comes to light - when open source projects are used against the companies that sponsor them.

Lets take a look at two high profile cases, both involving Google.

Android would not have been possible without both Linux and Java. Linux provided the operating system base and Java the language base. This is not to say that Google didn't do much. Google had to integrate the system, make it work and then elaborate on the facilities provided.

You cannot deny that Google has worked hard to make Android a workable and usable mobile operating system and environment but.. imagine the task without Linux or Java. It would have been next to impossible to build a complete operating system and language infrastructure from scratch.

One of the less appreciated advantages of open source is that it allows companies to build on earlier efforts by diverse sets of entities. Without Linux and Java who could afford to create a new operating system? In a world without open source the cost of getting off the starting blocks would be much higher. It is arguable that the only companies who could launch new operating systems are the few who already had operating systems available to modify and extend.

Consider for a moment that Apple built both OSX and iOS from open source - Unix. The only problem is that the license (BSD) didn't specify that changes had to be made open source and so Apple can keep its wares hidden from the outside world and declines to offer anything as a starting point for someone else - even though it does contribute some code back to the open source community.

A company can take some open source software and create something new. Most of what they create might have to open sources in turn but this is something that can be tolerated. After all what generally happens is that the community pitches in and lends a hand and it all seems so much better than having them just complain at you for bugs and missing features.



What usually doesn't happen is that your rivals borrow the software, modify it a bit and bring it out as a competitor. The reason is usually that there is, as any good Ferengi will tell you, no profit in it. After all you are giving away your "product" and any profit you are making is on the services and improved versions you sell. If anyone is going to muscle in on your territory it is companies providing support for your product and overall this too can be tolerated.

However, there are exceptions to the rule. If you build some software to help you deliver a service to your customers then the whole game changes and open source can bite the hand that created it.

Consider for a moment the Android operating system.


Google created it as a way of getting its services into the pocket of every phone owner. Its search engine, its gmail, its storage and so on. At first all free, or rather paid for by advertising, but eventually a proportion will cough up real money. Then there is the Play store which sells apps, books and music and who knows what else in the future.

Android is just a Trojan allowing Google into your digital world.

Of course, if Android can be a Trojan for Google it can be a Trojan for another company - Amazon. What a cheeky, but entirely legitimate, idea the Kindle Fire is. Take a version of Android, customize it a bit and use it to sell lots of things. Of course, this takes custom away from Google Play to Amazon. And who knows in time perhaps Amazon will offer a similar range of services to Google - it already offers music storage space and cloud services.


Google must be as angry at Amazon as Apple and Oracle are at Google and with more reason. It is as if the open source code that you have been working so hard on just turned around and bit you!

And it just happened again.


Yandex is Google's big search rival, with roughly 60% of the traffic, in Russia - a potentially important market. It must be very annoying to have to sit back and watch your competitor take the source code of Chromium - the open source part of the Chrome browser - and turn it into their own custom browser. The Yandex browser is optimized for the Russian market which is another way of saying the Yandex market.


This is, of course, another example of an open source product that is designed to deliver a company's services. Chrome is to the desktop what Android is to the mobile. Chrome helps you fall into Google's honey trap of free and integrated services. The problem once again is that if it works for Google it can work for another company and so Yandex can simply take what it needs to compete with Google from Google.


  In America, browser works for Google

In Russia, Google works for browser


So Android turns round and bites Google and then Chromium.

Is there a lesson in all of this?

Probably the main one is that  companies using open source as a Trojan to deliver services into a customers lap need to be aware that their advantage can very quickly become a competitor's advantage.

Why, for example, doesn't Microsoft give up on building IE and simply borrow Chromium? Why does it struggle with Windows Phone 8 when taking a version of Android would be just as good and perhaps better?

This particular use of open source is a dangerous game.

More Information

The Yandex Browser

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Last Updated ( Monday, 08 October 2012 )