Sony Mobile’s Involvement in Open Source

SCALARE partner Sony Mobile published their report on getting involved in Open Source communities. Click here to get it!

From internal code development behind locked doors through to open collaboration within the Open Source community – this is Sony Mobile’s transformation as a software developer. Here Carl-Eric Mols, Open Source Manager, reflects on the experiences of recent years. ✏ By Olle Bergman
The Open Source movement (see fact box) is several decades old, but it wasn’t until after the turn of the millennium that the major players entered the game, keen to share in all the available open code bases. Today hardly any of them look back with regret to the old closed world, where huge internal development departments focused more often on maintaining code than developing it. Sony Mobile’s Open Source journey began with general curiosity among developers at Sony Ericsson’s development department. This eventually led to an investigation, the results of which were so convincing that the management took the bold decision to burn their boats, shut down the work on operating systems without a future and invest wholeheartedly in the Open Source-based Android. The new era began in 2010 with the Android telephone Xperia X10. The success of this strategy was con firmed in 2013 when Sony Mobile was declared the core business within the Sony Group.
Carl-Eric Mols, Head of Open Source SW Operations and representing the R & D arm of Sony Mobile, sees a whole host of advantages in belonging to the Open Source movement: “First of all, it increases the pace of innovation and development, simply by having a larger number of developers focusing their creativity on a single task. And when someone comes up with a clever solution, the entire network has a share in it and benefits from it. As a result, everyone is constantly creating new opportunities for everyone else,” he says. “Basically, Sony Mobile would probably have fallen by the wayside in today’s mobile market. Without Android we simply would not have existed. You have to realize that more than 85% of our software today is based on Open Source.” Carl-Eric Mols believes that an Open Source project must be characterized by three properties: “The key words are transparent, participative and collaborative. Achieving this requires support and understanding from the company. Actually, more than that: management must be prepared to make Open Source thinking a part of the corporate culture, where the concept “freedom with responsibility” is applied to the developers’ role.”

R & D and Legal department – A Dynamic Duo

Close collaboration with the Legal department has played a central role. A key aspect was the early establishment of a “double command”, consisting of Carl-Eric Mols and a lawyer from Sony Mobile’s Legal department. The ‘Dynamic Duo’, as they call themselves, have been instrumental in changing the business and mindset throughout the development organization. “The Legal department recognized in the initial stage that Open Source – from a legal standpoint – was perfectly solid and valid; acquiring Open Source was essentially the same as any other kind of third party software,” says Carl-Eric Mols. “They also noted that Open Source would become utterly essential for the company’s survival from a business perspective.” In this way, the Legal department became a key player in persuading executive management that the necessary culture shift not only was possible, but would be warranted by governance under Legal’s supervision. “That support is fundamental for my role as the chief strategist for Open Source. It has also led to mutual trust between software developers and the lawyers. I have always taken pride in ‘translating’ legal concerns to developers, as well as the other way around, educating Legal on engineering concerns. The resulting trust has also led to executive management being much more daring in taking business initiatives involving openness and collaboration – even when it involves the competition.”

“In just over 12 months, [Sony Mobile] had gone from suing a developer that hacked the bootloader on his own purchased device, to providing the tools to unlock the bootloader on a high-quality device and giving users the instructions to build the kernel source. No other manufacturer had done that, nor have any others to date. That is full-on GPLv2 compliance like we’ve never seen before at XDA.”

The largest Android contributor

A major challenge is to fight the notions that Open Source is mainly a software engineering concern and also something of a slight headache for the Legal department. “Actually, it is a massive disruptor of business logic! These earlier viewpoints dominated thinking in the early days of Open Source in Sony Mobile, where it was seen as OK to use because it was “free of charge”. But in the last couple of years our mindset changed completely as the success of Android unfolded.” During his management training sessions a year or two ago, Carl-Erik Mols often used to start with the question, ‘How could Google, with the Android team consisting of just over 100 people at that time, create, develop and launch a full-blown smartphone operating system?’ And I always jumped in immediately with the answer, ‘Well, they didn’t!’ “Google’s Android consists of about 60–70 large Open Source components that were adapted and integrated by the Android team. So in fact the Android team’s work rested on the shoulders of thousands and thousands of Open Source developers – and there is no way we at Sony Mobile could ever match that massive amount of development power. Today we, in our turn, are standing on the shoulders of Android and searching for the sort of business opportunities that we can leverage with Open Source.” Today, not only does most of Sony Mobile use Open Source for everyday development, but the company has also established itself as the largest external contributor to Android development. “Recently, we have also taken several initiatives in the marketplace in leveraging Open Source in tilting business to our advantage. We are making progress in achieving position on the higher levels of Open Source Maturity when business concerns come into play. Here the effort in SCALARE is designed to help us to better navigate uncharted waters, such as ‘ecosystem building’ and ‘first market mover’ advantages given by Open Source based business.”