Where do we go from here?

11:43 am community, freesoftware, maemo, meego, work

The post-Elopocalypse angst has been getting me down over the past few days. It’s against my nature to spend a lot of time worrying about things that are decided, done, dusted. It was Democritus, I think, who said that only a fool worries about things over which he has no control, and I definitely identify with that. It seems that a significant number of people on mailing lists I’m subscribed to don’t share this character trait.

I prefer to roll with the punches, to ask, “where do we go from here?” – we have a new landscape, with Nokia potentially being a lot less involved in MeeGo over the coming months. Will they reduce their investment in 3rd party developers? Perhaps. I expect them to. Will they lay some people off? I bet that there will be a small layoff in MeeGo Devices, but I’d wager that there will be bigger cuts in external contracts. In any case, this is something over which I have no control.

First up – what next for MeeGo? While MeeGo is looking a lot less attractive for application developers now, I still think there’s a great value proposition for hardware vendors to get behind it in vertical markets. Intel seem committed, and MeeGo (even with Nokia reducing investment) is much broader than one company now. A lot of people are betting the bank on it being a viable platform. So I think it will be, and soon.

Will I continue contributing time & effort to MeeGo? My reasons for contributing to MeeGo were not dependent on Nokia’s involvement, so yes, but I will be carefully eyeing business opportunities as well. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t expect to get some business from a vibrant MeeGo ecosystem, and now I will need to explore other avenues. But the idea of collaborating on a core platform and building a set of free software form-factor specific UIs is still appealing. And I really do like the Maemo/MeeGo community a lot.

Luckily, the time to market difficulties that Nokia experienced are, in my opinion, issues of execution rather than inherent problems in working with free software. Companies have a clear choice between embracing proprietary-style development and treating upstream as “free code” (as Google have with Android), or embracing community-style development and working “The Open Source Way” (as Red Hat have learned to do). Nokia’s problems came from the hybrid approach of engage-but-keep-something-back, which prevented them from leveraging community developers as co-developers, while at the same time imposing all the costs of growing and supporting a large community.

I expect lots of companies to try to learn from this experience and start working smarter with communities – and since that’s where I can help them, I’m not too worried about the medium term.

I would bet on Nokia partners and subcontractors battening down the hatches right now until the dust settles, and potentially looking for revenue sources outside the MeeGo world. If I had a team of people working for me that’s what I’d do. If some Nokia work kept coming my way, I’d be glad of it, but right now I’d be planning a life without Nokia in the medium term.

For any companies who have followed Nokia from Symbian to MeeGo, my advice would be to stick to Linux, convert to an Android strategy, and start building some Windows Phone skills in case Nokia’s bet works out, but don’t bet the bank on it. And working effectively with community developed software projects is a key skill for the next decade that you should be developing (a small plug for my services there).

For anyone working on MeeGo within Nokia, the suspense over who might lose their jobs is worse than the fall, let me reassure you. Having been through a re-org or two in my time, I know that the wait can last weeks or months, and even when the cuts come, there’s always an itching suspicion of another one around the corner. Nothing is worse for morale in a team than wondering who will still be there next month. But you have learned valuable and sought-after skills working on MeeGo, and they are bankable on the market right now. If I were working on MeeGo inside Nokia right now, I think I’d ignore the possibility of a lay-off and get on with trying to make the MeeGo phone as great as possible. If I got laid off, I’d be happy to have a redundancy package worthy of Finland, and would be confident in my ability to find a job as a Linux developer very quickly.

For community members wondering whether to stick with MeeGo or jump ship, I’d ask, why were you hanging out around MeeGo in the first place? Has anything in the past week changed your motivations? If you wanted to have a shiny free-software-powered Nokia phone, you should have one by the end of the year. If you wanted to hack on any of the components that make up MeeGo, you can still do that. If you were hoping to make money off apps, that’s probably not going to happen with MeeGo on handsets any time soon. If you’re not convinced by the market potential of MeeGo apps on tablets, I’d jump ship to Android quick (in fact, why aren’t you there already?).

Qt users and developers are probably worried too. I don’t think that Qt is immediately threatened. The biggest danger for Qt at this point would be Intel & others deciding that Qt was a bad choice and moving to something else. That would be a massive strategic blunder – on a par with abandoning the GTK+ work which had been done before moblin 2 to move to Qt. Rewriting user interfaces is hard and I don’t think that Intel are ready to run the market risk of dropping Qt – which means that they’re pot-committed at this point. If Nokia ever did decide to drop Qt, Intel would probably be in the market to buy it. Then again, I can also see how Qt’s management might try to do an LMBO and bring the company private again. Either way, there will be a demand for Qt, and Qt developers, for some time to come.

No-one likes the guy giving unwanted advice to everyone, so this seems like a good place to stop. My instinct when something like this happens is to take a step back, see what’s inherently changed, and try to see what the landscape looks like from different perspectives. From my perspective, the future is definitely more challenging than it was a week ago, but it’s not like the Elopocalypse wiped out my livelihood. In fact, I have been thinking about life without Nokia since MeeGo was first announced last year, when I guessed that Nokia would prefer working through the Linux Foundation for an independent eye.

But even if Nokia were my only client, and they were going away tomorrow, I think I could probably find other clients, or get a job, quickly enough. It’s important to put these things in perspective.

14 Responses

  1. Alberto Ruiz Says:

    Regarding Trolltech going back to private, that’s gonna be hard given that Nokia basically broke their business model by going LGPL.

  2. Dave Neary Says:

    @Alberto: They need a new business model, and it needs to be sustainable. But given the up-tick in interest in Qt brought on by Nokia’s acquisition & Intel’s backing, that would appear to be possible, if challenging. Sun made a business model out of Java, in spite of giving away both the SDK and the runtime for many years.

    Plus, they still own all the copyright, and could feasibly (although suicidally) revert their licensing to previous policy.

    Dave.

  3. Emmanuele Bassi Says:

    re-selling Qt while Nokia still needs it badly to sustain the Symbian business (which, for the next bunch of quarters will be the thing that brings home the bacon, until a Windows phone can be delivered) would immensely stupid. so I guess somebody in a suit is actually thinking about it, right now.

    as for MeeGo: leaving my Intel hat on the desk, and not being part of the MeeGo team, I don’t think the Qt strategy was at all rewarding for the project. yes, it’s an established framework, but let’s see at the other ecosystems:

    • iOS has a pretty small subset of the OSX framework;
    • Android has a small, completely custom Java framework;
    • webOS has a small, completely custom HTML+CSS+JavaScript framework;

    you don’t need an established framework. you don’t even need an established language to drag in developers.

    you need a way to generate revenue through third party apps for third party developers. and you’re not going to do it through “the power of Qt”. even MeeGo is pushing for QtQuick, which is a new, in progress, fairly small, framework with a custom language. yes, you have to drop into C++ if you want to do more than a 2D game, and the performance is still way off. but it has nothing to do with Qt. hell, I could probably implement QtQuick on top of Clutter and a custom parser, and I don’t think developers using it would notice.

    so, again: I’d contend that the “Qt framework” was never the correct answer to begin with; changing it now, while being a potentially bad PR move, could also give forward momentum for a project that is perceived to be losing it after being tied to closely to Nokia products and Nokia technologies.

    anyway, just speculating; I honestly don’t have any more insight than anyone else in this matter. :-)

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  6. thp Says:

    Thanks for this calm and honest blog post, Dave. Some useful insights in here :)

  7. Jon Levell Says:

    “If you wanted to have a shiny free-software-powered Nokia phone, you should have one by the end of the year. ”
    I wanted to buy (and develop “itch-scratching” apps for) such a phone, when I had the expectation an ecosystem of apps would be released for it. Unless other manufacturers step up to fill the void, it looks unlikely that such an ecosystem will develop for such a phone at this stage.

  8. Rob Says:

    “””Nokia’s problems came from the hybrid approach of engage-but-keep-something-back, which prevented them from leveraging community developers as co-developers, while at the same time imposing all the costs of growing and supporting a large community.”””

    How do you come to this conclusion? Nokia’s competitors are open by various degrees, but for none of them the reason of success is leveraging community engineers in the development of their core platform.

    (App development is a different story of course, and MeeGo at this point is not at the state where success is about apps).

  9. Dave Neary Says:

    Nokia has both communicated about community and invested more in community resources than Nokia’s competitors. They have been investing heavily in MeeGo for 7 years now. Compare with Android’s 5 years, run as a proprietary project, behind closed doors, or Samsung’s LiMo platform, run as an internal project, using free software components, but again developed behind closed doors, with no communication about openness. Also, incidentally, stricken with time to market issues, in spite of that – in this case, partially because there was no interaction with upstream to improve the core building blocks in a sustainable way, and partially through “death by consortium”.

    If I were to summarise, I’d say that if you’re going to try to grow a platform developer community around a mobile platform, you need to go all in and burn the boats, and make the entire platform (including apps) open. If you want to provide just an SDK, then don’t even try to open up the development of the platform, just get on with it. Because trying adds overhead, and slows your time to market.

    Dave.

  10. Jörgen Says:

    @ebassi
    I think what maemo and moblin were/are missing is a good SDK/IDE. QT has QtCreator, which is a fairly fine piece of software. I just say “scratchbox, stab, stab, die.”

    Why however someone thought that it would be less work to rewrite maemo using a to-be-created toolkit on top of QGraphicsView instead of creating/investing into a proper IDE/SDK for maemo is an interesting question.

    Other than that I fully agree with you. The average app-developer seems to have no problem with learning objective-c/cocoa, so Gtk/Clutter/C should not have been the problem. Provided the product is as sexy as an iphone or android-phone obviously.

  11. Hub Says:

    How about taking Maemo/Meego and creating that platform for phone (and tablets)? My strategy would be to start with Maemo (the Gtk based version) and go from there.

    But that’s not the only thing. The grand scheme is actually very complete plan.

    As for Qt I don’t see a problem. Nokia actually made it easier for a scenario where former Trolls create a business around Qt as it no longer requires the copyright ownership to work.
    And whatever happens, Nokia can not remove that right. Even is they change the license, the current one will still be available and I believe that the KDE traction would actually lead to have this as the base for the future.

  12. Tim Says:

    I would like to see Canonical take up the Qt reins. Maybe there are some Trolltech assets worth picking up there.

  13. Matt Austin Says:

    Isn’t MeeGo for netbooks mostly GTK still anyway? Evolution, Totem, Fileroller, Nautilus, Banshee, Chromium are all GTK apps. In fact off the top-of-my-head I can’t really recall any QT apps?

  14. Dave Neary Says:

    Yes, that’s right The issue is that no-one’s been working on netbook for about a year, everyone’s working on the Qt based tablet OS inside Intel, and there has not really been a push to make the GTK+ based UI grow independently.