Android narrowly trails iPhone in open source app race

Despite launching on the T-Mobile G1 with little mainstream fanfare, Google Inc.’s Android OS appears to have gained strong interest in the open source development community, according to a new report by Black Duck Software Inc.

The Waltham, Mass.-based open source software consultancy found that Apple Inc.’s iPhone led the industry with 266 open source project releases during 2008, while Android followed in second place with 191 releases. Black Duck compiled the data after scouring through over 185,000 of open source projects across 4,000 Internet sites.

“From the standpoint of relative size, I would have actually expected the iPhone’s lead to have been even larger,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at San Jose, Calif.-based The Enderle Group. “People typically want to build for something that is in-market and with Android we only have the G1, which is kind of a beta release and not a very attractive phone.”

“It was by no means the sparkling product that the iPhone was when it launched.”

Peter Vescuso, executive vice-president of marketing and business development at Black Duck Software, said that he encountered a lot of buzz surrounding the Android platform while attending this month’s GMSA Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona.

“Android was very, very hot at the show with everybody talking about it,” Vescuso said. “The interesting thing here is that the Android platform has only been out since October. So we’re seeing a larger number of open source projects given that the platform was only officially released a few months ago.”

Rounding out the top five in Black Duck’s report were Windows Mobile at 174 project releases, Palm Inc. with 113 projects, and Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry OS with 96 releases.

While Windows Mobile is certainly a closed platform that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with open source, Vescuso said, the company enjoys four times the market share than the iPhone does. As for Palm, he added, while the company has certainly lost some momentum in recent years, its future open source community acceptance relies on what kind of splash its new Palm Pre can make on the market.

“We’ve seen 55 per cent growth over the last three years for open source projects targeting mobile platforms and I think that’s only going to accelerate in the coming year,” Vescuso said.

According to Enderle, while the value of open source products on consumer devices has yet to be determined, it is clear that an awful lot of application developers believe in the methodology and are increasingly using open source as a way to generate quick revenue.

“With these app stores, particularly the Apple App Store, if you to get it right, you can make a ton of money really fast, without a lot of resources,” Enderle said. “A lot of open source developers are small one or two person shops. And unlike in the proprietary world – where you have to jump through a number of additional hoops to bring your product to market – open source is a collaborative model which allows developers to launch their products very quickly.”

Recently, other mobile players appear to be following the Apple App Store/iTunes model and opening up the distribution channel for open source apps. Both Microsoft Corp. and Nokia Corp. announced official plans to launch their respective app stores earlier this month.

As for what kind of numbers we can expect to see for open source mobile projects in 2009, Enderle said that the buzz around the Palm and Android platforms, coupled with the global economic recession of all things, will boost the industry significantly.

“I do expect open source to ramp up, because you’ve got an awful lot of open source folks that are currently being laid off and these app stores provide a great way for them to take their skills and make money on a product very quickly.”

“It’s either leveling World of Warcraft or trying to make money,” Enderle joked.

Of course, not every mobile OS can expect to reap the benefits of growing open source interest.

The LiMo Foundation’s Linux-based mobile platform finds itself on the other end of the spectrum from Apple and Google. It finished at the bottom of Black Duck’s report with only 6 known project releases last year.

“If you would think they’re be any place that open source developers would gravitate to, it would be LiMo, but this showcases that the platform hasn’t been very popular with consumers,” Enderle said.

“Regardless of religion, you go where the money is and LiMo just hasn’t been where the money is,” he added.

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