Are there too many open-source alternatives?

How many open-source mobile operating systems does the industry need, anyway? That's the question some onlookers have been asking ever since Nokia announced in late June it will acquire the remaining shares of mobile software licensing company Symbian and create an open-source foundation that will give away the OS for free. Together with Google's Android and the LiMo Foundation's LiMo Platform, the post-acquisition Symbian means mobile developers must now contend with three major open-source operating systems--and as the old adage says, three's a crowd.  

There's growing sentiment that the answer lies in collaboration between the various open-source factions, or even consolidation: Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates, predicts Symbian and Android will join forces within the next six months, arguing the advantages in a recent report. "Having an open-source OS that is adopted by a broad array of device manufacturers allows [handset makers] to better compete for additional business by allowing sales of games, music, videos, apps and other services even on those devices not manufactured by their own company," Gold writes. Not to mention that consolidation simplifies the efforts of mobile developers by reducing the number of platforms they must consider.

Of course, the most compelling argument for an über-OS fusing some combination of Symbian, Android or LiMo is its potential to rival the iPhone by offering operators something Apple never will: Control. As a feature in Monday's New York Times notes, AT&T has no say over the applications subscribers download to their iPhones. But the latitude afforded iPhone owners is forcing carriers and manufacturers to embrace the open spirit. And that's the great irony of the open-source renaissance: The closed iPhone platform is forcing everyone else to open up. Openness is not about largesse--it's about survival. Or as Kris Kristofferson once wrote, "Freedom is just another word for nothin' left to lose." -Jason