Nokia, the unknown open source contributor?


Why server downtimes and flame wars seem to start always on Friday afternoon? As you probably know, this time the well-intentioned Ari Jaaksi got slashdotted and a new wave of discussion around Nokia and its open source involvement began.

My conclusion in a nutshell: these things would not happen this way if the community at large would know about Nokia’s open source contributions. Yes, Ari could have found better words and timing, the journalists, bloggers and commenters could have considered better the context and all that. But at the end I think the core issue is that Nokia is seen as a corporation that takes but doesn’t give – which is false. In fact many core maintainers and insiders seem to be relatively happy about Nokia contributions and involvement in the open source community.

I’m talking about a lot of patches and new code contributed to several upstream projects: Linux kernel,, BlueZ, GStreamer, Telepathy, other projects under the umbrella, GTK+, Mozilla, Tracker, Scratchbox… The list is actually long and not easy to evaluate. shows only a sample of it.

There are not only the contributions made directly by own developers. Nokia makes a significant investment through many collaborations with especialized companies well known in the community i.e. OpenedHand, Collabora, Imendio… Here the list is not short either. Beyond code, Nokia also supports in different ways non-profit organizations like the Linux Foundation, the Free Software Foundation, Debian and the GNOME Foundation.

All this makes difficult to evaluate in numbers what are the contributions of Nokia to the open source community. Still, it would be worth to investigate. Another points to consider are the quality of the contributions and they way they are made i.e. following the rules or not.

Any information from the people in the know (if only approximate or subjective) would be better than the lack of information that prevails nowadays. Some projects analyze their commits and publish basic studies. Some researchers are digging in the contributions around key open source projects. There is probably lots of data, let me know if we can assist processing it and gathering more.

About the rest of the discussion, see here and here. I’m less concerned about words and scenarios than about actions and results. In this sense, please point loudly to any product fitting in your pocket more open and successful than the most open&successful Nokia product, now (Maemo 4 and N810) or in the future.

I rather spend my professional time working on actions and results, with the goal of improving the performance and example in the open&successful ranking. It has been interesting to spend many hours this weekend reading and writing (in ITt, from here onwards), but it’s already Monday and in few hours I will go back to “real” work.


These are the slides of Ari’s presentation. The last one says “Open source community and Nokia – We need to learn from each other“. In fact that message had been said already at OSiM World. That speech in San Francisco was recorded and is available to listen.

This time the presentation was done in Handsets World, a conference with no focus in open source. He was advocating about the advantages of open source to that audience familiar with the mobile industry. Then a journalist asked, and the answer quoted out of context generated all the discussion.

Image: 3D, by Barron Fujimoto (some rights reserved)

16 Responses to “Nokia, the unknown open source contributor?”

  1. 1 Bundyo

    You probably know of this Phoronix article, but in case you don’t:

  2. Here here.

  3. 3 foo

    Thats great, but their contributions are not the issue here.

    If RMS decided OGG was proprietary and started advocating DRM, we’d ridicule, mock and reject him as much if not more than Nokia is.

  4. 4 sad

    right the value of the contributions is signficant. to pick a big project, patch (by lines) submissions for the linux kernel place nokia in the top in general among commercial entities. While valuable that doesn’t ammount to much when an official mouthpiece repudiates the value of open source….

    “sorry, thanks, we’ll use your code, we’ll contribute upstream, but we’ll hold tightly to anything we consider of proprietary interest and we’ll use our position in the toolchain to lock you out of the software you enabled.”

    I wonder if I’d been there would I have walked out?

  5. 5 hammer and nails

    When your only tool is marketing, everything looks like a communications problem. How on earth has it come to this. Do you really believe that you can buy credibility that way?

    You and Ari are making Nokia look precisely like the big clumsy corporate relic that it is. I know full well how much Nokia has contributed, I disagree totally in what should be done to convert that into genuine goodwill.

    A good start would be to get realistic on what is. It’s purpose at the moment is really vague, which leads to people projecting their own hopes and dreams on it, instead of what Nokia is truly ready and able to provide. That’s never going to end well.

    Next useful thing would be to do as you preach, focus on actions instead of rhetoric.

    At the moment I’m getting the feeling that you’re in the middle of a completely self-created problem. You’ve gathered a “community” of day dreamers who want to build their own distributions and do other random doodly doo which has amazingly little to contribute to the critical open source projects. Then you two go out and make these speeches about blahblah, apparently completely missing the fact that in the embedded linux kernel development world most people are much, much more aware of the various business models, licensing realities and other constraints than you give them credit for. Same applies to the vast majority of the engineers working on open source for money, especially in highly controversial areas like graphics and multimedia.

    These engineers are not likely to make too much noise in the blogs, so you won’t see them as your visibility is limited to the edge of blogosphere.

    Thus you end up making your speeches and writing your essays based on feedback from one small, but loud, segment of the community. However, your message is being received by everybody. And it doesn’t make you look good. Next time you could try listening to the guys and gals who are really doing the heavy lifting, some of them work or have worked at Nokia.

    As for addressing the contentious topics of vendor lock-in and DRM, my advice would be to shut up about them. In public focus only on the true positives of what you’re doing (which there is no shortage of), and just implement the crappy features required by the particular business environment you’re working in, no need to force everybody else to get involved. This may require you to scale down drastically of what is pretending to be, if essential components of the Nokia platform are closed, you can’t claim that it’s open. Doing so makes you look dishonest.

    Admitting that the end product is not truly open doesn’t take away anything from what Nokia has contributed to those open source projects it has chosen to use, starting with the work on kernel, X, gtk and related technologies.

    So yeah, in the end a little bit of PR strategy might be all that you really need, but it would rely on you keeping quiet at the right times, not blanketing the world with posters highlighting the problems. If somebody disagrees with Nokia’s way of making money, that’s alright, hopefully they can still accept the source code contributed to their projects. If they find it impossible to work with Nokia because of moral issues, you just have to respect that. If they are not involved in deciding what goes in, they don’t really matter, do they?

  6. 6 troll

    Still, we have not yet seen the first case where Nokia actually uses the open source. Usually it goes only the other way with companies so I feel it is quite weird. Now where is my N8xx with 3G data component? 😦

  7. 7 deviceguy

    The problem is not Nokia’s lack of contributions, it’s the apparent openness of Nokia’s “open source” that itself develops. It’s about lobbying the EU for a software patent system.

    You say that if you release all your sources other players will make a product just like it, stealing revenue from Nokia. This is BS. You think all those iPhone copycats are stealing revenue from Apple?

    You know that Nokia would use it’s trademark, copyright and patents to stop anything from taking root in the commercial sense. I am sure things would be different if Nokia used it many attorneys to defend it’s copyright /LGPL/GPL licenses.

    What about ‘imatation is the ultimate form of flattery’.

    The whole point of open source is to share the code, so someone can make it better, which benefits the original project. Not to mention the bug fixes and reports you can get from the community.

    Because of Nokia’s lack of openness about the Maemo thing, Openembedded, which is one of the most well known build systems for Linux embedded, has very limited support for n8x0’s. And because if this, embedded developers will tend to shy away from this device, as they cannot create their own truely open working system on it.

    It’s about being Truely Open with your own platform that claims to be open source. Sure, the API imay be open, but what about even the most trivial of real application code?

    As in, WTF is proprietary about a battery status applet, or network configuration enough to not release the sources?

    This is why Maemo should have been GPL’d, not LGPL’d from the beginning.
    As I have said many times, LGPL is not about free and open source software, it is about closed, proprietary software. and the most prominent example? Maemo.

  8. 8 qgil

    @hammer you touch very good points. Thank you very much for your time and help.

    > A good start would be to get realistic on what is.

    Should be clear by September through and

    > Then you two go out and make these speeches

    _These speeches_ were done in front of business people interested in knowing what Nokia is doing with open source, not embedded linux kernel developers. Still, I get what you are saying.

    > Next time you could try listening to the guys and gals who are really doing
    > the heavy lifting, some of them work or have worked at Nokia.

    I do, but I will try harder. I fully agree also on the fact that it’s a world of engineers and are the engineers who should talk with words, code and facts. We can improve here as well.

    > if essential components of the Nokia platform are closed,
    > you can’t claim that it’s open

    There are many discrete positions between fully open and fully closed. Maemo aims to keep leading the combination of open & successful. I agree we need to be honest on the fact that 100% openness is not a goal per se in Maemo and explain the reasons Nokia has to release package X as binary only.

  9. 9 Nathan Dbb

    If you do not make a winning product, nobody cares how good or how open you would be. That said, if you compromise what makes you good and open in order to win then your victory is nothing because you are no longer better then the products and people you beat out.

    Nokia wants us all to forget why we are better, and sell it all for a single win. The win will feed the egos of open source developers, while it would be a loss for open source. This single win will divide the people who who want to develop into a camp using-Nokia-super-secret-IP and real open source developers on the other side.

  10. 10 NS

    I’m looking at the N810 on my desk belting out tunes for me while I write this. My only complaint is the non-removable internal memory which is a step backwards from the N800 especially with the lifespan of current Flash chips. Luckily it’s booting off the external flash so I’ll replace that just like I’ll replace the hard drive in my desktop when it hits the read/write limit.

    I love it though. The N800 was the first device since the Palm T5 that was actually an upgrade by hardware and feature set standards. This N810 will be my data symbiot until it goes the way of my T5 or get’s blown away by the next generation (N820, N900?).

    In terms of 3G, I think the business case is based on the fact that the N810 would eat Nokia’s own phone market and most competitors alive if it had a cell radio included in it. With a wifi/wimax radio and skype, it will already be taking a share from the traditional phones.

    In terms of openness, I think Nokia would stand to gain by opening things like the battery management networking code. The old argument goes that if hardware manufacturers provided standard driver interface or proper driver specs, they could focus budgets on more hardware development while the community improved the driver support.

    While the device is great as an Internet Tablet for browsing, email and limited messageing/voip these are the minimal vendor provided uses out of the box. GPS and a physical keyboard where the killers that pushed me up from the N800 (waiting eagerly for that gtk/qt common compatability in Diablo). I hear the GPS works great though I’ve yet too get enough signal to see coordinates returned up here in TO, Canada; I have to read into that now that I fixed config wishes.

    I (as small an individual speck as I am among Maemo lovers) am far beyond the boxed features thanks to how open Nokia has been able to be so far. They have a real winning device with this block of hardware and the the true limits and possabilities have only been scratched a little so far.

    Bravo for Nokia for how open they’ve been so far and hopefully they can find ways to open more of the binary while maintaining there balance. If they can keep it up, I’ll be a lifer; if they go the way of Palm, someone else will fill the space.

    (I’ve a head full of tech skills but saddly, coding is not in the top ten so I’m limited to being yet another within the small group of loud mouths)

  11. 11 SAR

    I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to this article about “openness” from the perspective of an engineer who uses the N800, but does not design for it:
    I love this device and the Maemo platform. Believe it or not, was exactly what I expected: a centralized location to find info on Maemo software. I was slightly disappointed with the PIM applications (GPE), but with the Garnet VM, I’m up and running exactly where my silver brick (LifeDrive) left me. Sound and WiFi performance was always a huge shortcoming of the Palm OS due to its inability to multitask, but the N800 picks up the slack there. I understand that some developers would like the N800 to be more open, but from my perspective, Nokia has perfectly fulfilled my expectations, especially when compared to Palm. I’m not sure that more “openness” would improve my experience, and I am pretty happy with as well. I’m not a blind fanboy, I’m just a satisfied customer, and that’s the bottom line in business.

    If given a voice, I would actually argue to Nokia that more “openness” might kill the interest a lot of us have in the IT product line. Some of us are tired of desktop Linux after all the distro wars, and there appears to be no stabilization in sight. I would hate to see the same thing happen to the mobile platforms. As much as I may hate some of the software policies of the giants, at least Microsoft and Apple keep things more consistent by only releasing one major product line of OS. That really helps unify developers AND users.

  12. 12 The Badger

    SAR: “I would hate to see the same thing happen to the mobile platforms.”

    Ah, so the solution is to “go closed”, is it? Search Google for “patents promote standardisation” and check out the first entry. Where’s the patent pledge, Nokia? Or is it comfortable riding two horses at once?

  13. 13 qgil

    With all respects. My dear Norwegian Badger, I have spent too much time discussing with the anonymous you. If you want to talk face to face you know where to find me.

  14. 14 The Badger

    “My dear Norwegian Badger, I have spent too much time discussing with the anonymous you.”

    I’m sure you have! With such slick (but usual) evasion of the issues, I will have to tell my slippery penguin friends here in the Antarctic, who I expect to be highly impressed. When I return from my vacation, I might just drop you a line. You never know!

  15. 15 Anonimous_Coward

    Nokia is so big that sometimes behaves in strange way. Yeah, they use opensource. However they also promote DRM restrictions and it is Nokia who should be “thanked” for lack of official video tags in HTML specs. Hey, Nokia, are you really sure your customers need DRM restrictions?Not more than knife in the a$$.

  16. 16 Anonimous_Coward

    I mean that you can not be open and at the same time cheat customers with DRM.Why cheat?Simple! Are your site completely and cleanly explains restrictions to users?No?Are you hiding these nasty systems and the only way to encounter it to buy device and then it is too late.Come on, write on your user’s site for each phone model something like “this device includes the following restrictions: … “.What?This will make your devices look worse?Phew, here we come to open again.In total Nokia is not so open and quite tricky, yep?

%d bloggers like this: