Open source is not just democratization of software code — it’s a way for vendors to get their software out to markets they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get a grasp on. That’s why the hotspot aggregator Boingo Wireless is going to make the code for its Wi-Fi connection management software available to carriers, providers and equipment makers supporting BREW, Linux, Windows Mobile 2003 and Windows Mobile 5 on handheld devices.
Why would a company that makes money licensing its software to its platform services customers give away that code? It’s all in the numbers.
“So much of Wi-Fi is based on laptops — 150 to 200 million units worldwide,” says Christian Gunning, Director of Marketing Communications at the Santa Monica, California-based company. “But mobile handsets, to consoles, to cameras — you’re talking billions of products looking for connectivity, products looking to leverage broadband to their benefit. Those products have N possible combinations. No one can port to and support them all with a roaming software solution.”
Add to that the feedback from Boingo customers who did not want to be hemmed in to one company owning all the intellectual property (IP) involved in connecting their products, and you’ve found a need to get open.
The software Boingo is presenting has three components. The application abstraction interface and platform interface will have an Apache 2.0 license, so anyone using them can modify them to their hearts’ content without publishing any of the enhancements back to the open source community. “They can protect how they integrate the code with their own operating system, up to the device driver level,” says Gunning.
However, the main component — the Boingo Embedded Wi-Fi Toolkit — will have a
GNU General Public License LGPL (Lesser General Public License). “With LGPL, developers can establish dynamic link libraries that leverage the code without having to publish their IP. The virality of GPL made it much less attractive, and we thought would decrease adoption,” says Gunning. [Corrected on May 22, 2006] Enhancements to the embedded software should be made available publicly. Boingo is putting the toolkit and documentation up on SourceForge.net, and hopes to see third-party enhancements published there.
“This eliminates a software license fee for carriers to integrate [Boingo software],” says Gunning. While anyone can get the code and try it out, don’t think for a moment it gives instant access to Boingo’s extensive footprint of 45,000 hotspots to just anyone. Providers who build this into their handsets or PDAs still have to make a network roaming agreement with Boingo to get access. Service won’t be made available directly to end users.
“There’s a margin for us,” says Gunning. “This enables as many devices as possible, and as they access our network, we make money.” Such carriers would have to buy the Boingo Configuration Server for provisioning devices to end users as well.
This code is limited to handhelds. Don’t look for the software code Boingo provides for laptops to be open sourced anytime soon, if ever. Gunning says they have distinct code bases, and the laptops are infinitely more complex due to the addition of, among other things, full 802.1X authentication supplicants with various EAP types. With some of the modules involved coming from third parties, Boingo isn’t in a position to make that software code available.
The core of the Boingo Embedded Wi-Fi Toolkit will include profile connection management and network sniffing, so the software can be automated to let handhelds connect to open Wi-Fi signals that aren’t part of the Boingo network (just like the current Boingo laptop software, which isn’t just licensed, but available to anyone for individual subscription access). 802.1X could be added to the toolkit in the future, but Gunning says most mobile devices haven’t gotten to the point of needing that level of authentication yet.
Boingo hopes the carriers will see this as a boon to let them offload some of their cellular customers to lower cost, higher performance networks as needed. The company already demonstrated the software in use on Kyocera phones at the 3GSM WorldCongress show recently. Hong Kong-based E28 Ltd. was announced as the first company to adapt the toolkit to its Linux handsets. Boingo also released a list of companies supporting the toolkit’s open source release, including Broadcom, Devicescape (which has its own open source Wi-Fi going into the Linux kernel), iBAHN, Kineto, Microsoft and StayOnline.
Boingo has an additional embedded software support site at http://www.boingo.com/embedded that includes a network test platform to make sure any changes still work to connect to Boingo’s network.