For Navicron, a wireless technology company launched in Oulu, Finland, in 2004, open source development means it can move products to market quicker and cheaper. Navicron is just beginning to reach out to the United States in search of a larger market. The company, which creates hardware and software for cell phones, recently opened an office in Texas so company representatives could be closer to potential vendor partners and venture capital in the States.
Navicron develops cell phone software on Linux, because the open source platform allows for "more combinations" of the applications that cell phone manufacturers ask for. "When customers request a certain set of features, we look at the open source community to see what's available, or use applications developed by our staff," says Chairman of the Board Matti Kattilakoski. "We combine those to offer more for our customers."
For Navicron, the biggest benefit of developing on Linux is "time and money. Essentially, if something is already available in the open source software community, and it works for you, you save a great deal of time and money getting the product to market."
But Kattilakoski says there's a tradeoff. "From our perspective, the concern is that open source software doesn't always necessarily meet our quality standards." Before turning your developers loose in the open source community, he says, remember that out of thousands of existing projects, only a handful may be suitable for the enterprise. "You have access to many works in progress," he says, "which may not be ready. The quality of documentation varies quite a bit. And since Navicron works with embedded applications, we have limited processing power and limited memory. It's imperative that the applications [we use] are originally developed with those limitations in mind. All that kind of makes life a little bit more difficult."
Kattilakoski also cautions that licensing issues can crop up even with open source. "Software engineers are not lawyers, but they still need to understand the differences in licenses that are typically used in open source," and how those licenses work together.
Kattilakoski says most of his customers don't mind that Navicron is using open source software. "Typically, we tell them up front what our plan is, and they approve the use of open source. Most of the time customers are fine. Sometimes there's initial reticence or pushback." In cases like that, Kattilakoski spends a little extra time showing his customers just how many popular cell phones from big companies like Motorola and Samsung are running on Linux. Convincing customers about the goodness of open source is easy, Kattilakoski says, because the development team keeps the customer's desires tantamount. "Understand what you both want to achieve, always thinking about what is best for the customer."
Kattilakoski says that Google's recent announcement of the formation of the Open Handset Alliance is good news for open source software in the mobile industry, and for entrepreneurs who are thinking about building a business based on the open source model. "That's the kind of interesting development that happens in the open source community, and as mobile developers we really need to stay on top of the latest developments. There are a lot of small startups moving in the area of open source."
He advises other companies, "Keep your eyes and ears open at all times and try to understand what is going on in the marketplace with open source software."