Sony Open Device Program Interview: Opening Much More Than Just Software
At the Big Android Barbecue 2015, we had the honor of interviewing Alin Jerpelea from Sony, after his great talk on Sony’s plans to open up the hardware of their devices as well as future plans for their developer programs. You can find the full, highly recommendable talk here.
A notable takeaway is that Sony is now helping developers do much more with their devices, as they are allowing and encouraging the repurposing of the hardware. With the coming Internet of Things and the proliferation of smart home devices, such a program will allow developers and inquisitive minds to experiment in radical ways. That, the new plans behind Sony’s traditional software-related programs and their M concept builds (which we will review soon!), make Sony one of the best OEMs in terms of developer support, and a commendable advocate in the developer scene.
XDA’s Mario Serrafero had a talk with Alin Jerpelea, Open Source Community Manager at Sony, to learn more details about these programs, their inspiration and their goals.
M: [Sony’s] open source efforts now stretch past just the software, you are also opening up the Xperia family in terms of hardware, and it allows people to use components for other modifications, to use as servers, it allows people to repurpose their devices… Over the years, Sony has been opening up their devices in ways that other OEM’s haven’t — in fact, [other OEMs] have been closing their devices to the community. What influenced Sony to begin appealing to this base more and more?
A: if you look at a device evolution from a developer’s perspective, you get the device from the shelf, and you keep it for several months maybe, as it is, without unlocking it. After that, it is human nature to explore and innovate and from there comes the next step in a device life, as a developer will flash a custom ROM and create something new. But think of what happens when 2-3 years have passed and such device is morally old, replaced by another device, or its screen is broken. [The phone] will be discarded in a drawer and forgotten in there for some years, in the end reaching the garbage bin and increasing waste. So, this is how we thought of this repurposing thing. Internet Of Things is coming, so a lot of people will start building small things to control different areas of their life and they already have obsolete devices that can be used for repurposing. You can really build something nice from something old. We are doing the same with everything that we have. When you take a rusty old car and make it work again, you are rebuilding it, you are doing the same. We are trying to encourage people to use the old boards which are powerful enough to power a lot of fun projects and there is no need to to buy a new development board for your project.
M: What is so great to many people about the Xperia family is that the devices are rather similar and you see a lot of people taking inspiration and ideas from these devices, and doing all these ports and modifications, as there are very active development communities including our Xperia forums. We have so many featured posts from the Xperia development boards. But, in a way, you are contributing to Android itself and also catering to developers, kind of taking after the Nexus mantle. How do you see that evolving and what is your purpose towards developers, in particular for software?
A: Nexus is a great inspiration platform because almost everything is open source and this is also our goal, to provide as much open source code as possible with zero patches.
The goal of Open Devices is to provide a stable learning and innovation platform by being always on the latest kernel and android versions. We encourage people to think outside the box, to experiment with different OS, not only Android because there is a lot of innovation waiting to happen and there are more opportunities waiting for you.
M: On the compatibility side, you are pushing for one kernel to make it easy to add features to Xperia devices, to patch and fix issues.
A: If you look on X86 (PC) linux there is 1 kernel for all and we try to provide the same for Xperia devices. I think that we have achieved a major progress in last 2 years from a community perspective. Two years ago we had 9 kernels, on different branches, in Cyanogen, for Sony devices, [and] making maintenance and updates was a nightmare. Now we are providing 1 kernel for 21 devices making patching and maintenance easy. This was my first goal after joining Sony, 1 kernel for all.
M: So, at this time, there is the whole issue with Android vulnerabilities and Google is rapidly iterating on Android with security patches that they promised. Do you see that affecting the development of the project?
A: We are constantly updating build guides for last 2 Android versions, current and last one, the next day after Google has released a new branch. This is agile development and custom ROMs can benefit from it. We hope that by providing a stable base, quality of community work will become better and better.
M: Moving on to devices themselves, Xperia phones have amazing hardware. How can opening up software and hardware in such a way help developers explore their virtues?
A: Everything that we open up is on developer grade level, and it is not intended for daily use. So, this being said, not all these functions are matching the Sony-shipped software. You have limited functionality offered by open source software. And this really important, even if you look on a laptop or desktop side because that is easy to understand. The open source drivers for your audio are not matching the manufacturers one, the open source drivers for your GPU are not matching the manufacturers one. But they offer you all that you need to use your device in proper parameters. With our phones, it is the same. If you want the best camera quality, you use the Sony software. If you want to innovate, you use the open source framework. The same goes for GPS, and for all other hardware areas. We are opening up as much as is possible.
M: How do you think these efforts affect Android in the long run, and how important do you think programs like this are?
A: We have formed a community that understood that contributing upstream is an important long term and that their work can be sent to Google or Kernel.org improving future software quality. This is how Open Source works, everybody can fix and contribute upstream increasing the quality of the next stable version.
M: And increasing the volume, the amount of developers exposed to programs like this, ultimately benefits the platform as a whole and thus, that trickles down to every device, right?
A: Yes, but here we not just talking about Android, we are talking about every area that is open source. I do not see that only Android will benefit, I see that maybe somebody has a great idea in kernel. Maybe somebody will create a new operating system. You never know when innovation happens.
M: And this leads me to other development platforms and operating systems. You talked about how this will allow developers to play with Sailfish OS and Firefox OS on Sony hardware.
A: Developers are early adopters and they want to look with everything that is now in infancy. On XDA, I saw great ports of different operating systems that were never even intended to be run on a tablet or a phone. Because people want to discover and want to innovate. So this is what is driving the whole thing. We are trying to push innovation. Those Early pioneers have made big progress by porting and creating guides how to build Sailfish and FireFoxOS. I think that more will come from the community in the future.
M: What impact do you hope this has in the developer scene? How do the programs that Sony has put out actually benefit developers?
A: I can take a snapshot of how CyanogenMod was looking two years ago with 9 different kernels, a lot of binary files, and a lot of hacks to get the ROM booted, and how the whole thing looks or can look in the future with one kernel, one set of HALs coming from Google AOSP and hacks. I think that in terms of stability and the ability of people to understand the code, things have improved a lot, [while also] increasing the final software quality.
M: Finally, anything you would like to say to developers at XDA who would be interested in these efforts?
A: You can always join us! Everything that is cleanly written can be accepted in Sony Open Device Program, Google AOSP, Kernel.org or any other OS you are interested in. This program is decoupled from Sony official software and is intended to be build by developers for developers as a learning and innovation platform.
Be sure to check out Sony Developer World to learn more about Sony’s developer-focused efforts!
What do you think of Sony’s commitment to bettering the development scene? Let us know in the comments!