Tuesday, 17 July 2012

LiMo Foundation: 5 Lessons to Learn

The LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation was formed in 2007 as an open Industry collaboration to create a shared linux-based software platform for smart phones. It was a grand groundbreaking initiative from the founding members; Motorola, NEC, NTT DoCoMo, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodafone. Important Industry players sharing real platform code and not just API and protocol specifications was a first. Not heard of it? Well, it was comprehensively eclipsed by the Android platform that came later the same year. Many LiMo compliant handsets were still sold though, but mostly in Japan and those actually contained no code received from LiMo. The only 'real' LiMo handsets were the Vodafone 360 service H1 and M1 handsets from Samsung (neither of which were loved by their owners).

It was more successful than Nokia's open sourcing of Symbian (presumably a measure Nokia took partly in response to LiMo and Android) but nowhere near as successful as Android. As I was involved in the LiMo initiative since before its official launch, here some, an arbitrary 5, lessons that I think can be learned:-

1. Don't try to make a patchwork quilt of technology - at least not in a short time frame and all at once.

Patchwork quilts of components integrated from many places can certainly work; arguably most Linux-based systems are (or were originally) like this. However making a whole quilt in one go based on functional or political lines in a short time frame leads to problems (performance, stability, functionality, lack of extensibility, etc). This is what LiMo tried to achieve for its first version of the platform and it effectively failed - nobody really used the result in products. Just creating the platform did, however, prove that the members could work together to create something...an achievement in itself.

2. Don't let politics get in the way of technical progress.

Easy to say and understand...difficult to achieve in practice. If the organisational structure and procedures can be set up in a way that focuses on a business-like footing i.e. to serve the need of defined customer(s), that is all for the better.

3. If the (decision-making) power is to be shared equally, then the true commitment level must also be equal.

Not just the wish for equal commitment (ie investment), which is often difficult to achieve in practice given that the relative (financial/market) strengths of different players are very likely to differ significantly in an open collaboration. If this cannot be achieved, its better to recognise the fact; give the main decision making powers to a few (or 1) to craft the bulk of the platform and empower others to be able to innovate around the edges to be successful.

4. To be adopted by others, a platform has to be sufficiently complete, mature and stable enough compared to competing platforms.

Despite the marketing messages to the contrary (erm, at every MWC), this was where LiMo failed the most. The platform was never really complete (or complete enough) and kept changing significantly from one release to the next. Consequently it was immature and a really expensive and/or very high risk option that in the end nobody (apart from Samsung as one of the many operating system options they have) was able to take a bet on.

5. Delivery is Everything

For any platform to succeed today, open or otherwise, it not only has to meet #4 but also keep evolving and delivering, because that is what the competition (e.g. iOS, Android) is doing. To serve a niche need may be sufficient for survival in the short term, but the niche is likely to be eroded over time; so plan for the long term and don't rely on it - deliver, evolve, improve and deliver, again and again.

Uh oh, I've run out of lessons to give already, so this will have to be 5a: Don't necessarily give up easily when the core raison d'etre is still there (Google effectively control Android for instance; not the ideal situation for mobile Network Operators). The platform code was effectively transferred by Samsung to form the basis of the Tizen platform and the Limo Foundation re-scoped and re-branded itself as the Tizen Association. I wish every chance of future success to Tizen.

Update: Many thanks to the Carnival of the Mobilists (@theMobilists) for mentioning this blog entry in their weekly roundup of most interesting/best blogs, I really feel honored.

Martin Yagi.

Martin is available for freelance consulting on mobile standards/collaboration, emerging applications/technology and innovation. To discuss your requirements check contact details in Martin's profile.

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