Nokia and Trolltech: Out loud and on the Qt

Bill Weinberg, — Reposted from

Today, Nokia announced its intention to acquire UI application framework provider Trolltech ASA . This move on Nokia’s part is touted as facilitating “application development for multiple platforms and devices”, and indeed one of Trolltech’s claims to fame is the cross platform agility of its Qt framework. I have already encountered waves of exuberance (rational and otherwise) about the virtues of this acquisition for Nokia, but little discussion of the trends and values underlying it.

Trolltech Background

Established in 1994, Trolltech built its fortunes on launching, supporting and commercializing the Qt graphical application framework. Qt exists as both a commercial offering and an open source project. To some degree, Trolltech pioneered the concept of dual licensing, by which two or more licenses apply to a single code base. In the Trolltech Qt case, the company offers a commercial license (with royalties) for deployment in commercial applications (desktop and embedded) and a FOSS license for development of and deployment in FOSS projects. Recently, Trolltech updated the FOSS license for Qt and for other code it licenses to employ GPLv3.

In 2006, Trolltech enjoyed a fairly succesful IPO (OSE TROLL), and today enjoys the position of the ISV with the greatest number of deploymenst on Linux-based mobile phones. Among their OEM customers are Motorola, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and others, who ship upwards of three dozen handset models with Qt and the Qtopia application set. Indeed, one of the most successful Linux-based phones to date, the Motorola A1200 (MOTOMING) garnered an unprecedented 1% share of China’s entire mobile market.

Qt enjoys a large developer base and also a worldwide end-user
following around the K-Desktop (KDE) for Linux and other OSes. KDE
boasts an active community and is the default desktop for many Linux
distributions. Indeed, while recently best known for its embedded
wins, Trolltech reportedly garners the majority of its revenues from
desktop ISVs.

Trolltech Challenges

Rosy past does not always translate into lucrative present and future. While today, Qt and Qtopia represent the leader in mobile framework deployments (in a highly fragmented field), their position in embedded /mobile is less then 100% solid:

  • Motorola and other OEMs have stated publicly and privately that they intend to move away from Qt and Qtopia in the mid and even short term, designing with and deploying instead GTK+, the GIMP Took Kit (part of GNOME).
  • OEMs of all stripes, especially those is an Asia, are reportedly turning away from Qt and Qtopia to reduce the software burden on their bills-of-material. They justify the move not just on financial grounds, but claim that current level and quality of Trolltech support does not justify the additional development and deployment costs. The acquisition is likely to accelerate this trend.
  • Mobile stack providers ACCESS and Azingo , the OpenMoko project, and Nokia’s have also gone with GTK. Stack providers Fluffy Spider Technologies and Mizi Research do not use Qt, nor will Palm in its Linux-based phones. Among Linux-based stack providers, only a la Mobile continues to integrate and ship Qt and Qtopia.
  • Standards bodies, consortia and other .orgs, even those in which Trolltech participated, participates or plans to participate, have standardized on GTK rather than Qt. These bodies include LiMO, LiPS, and OSDL/Linux Foundation (Desktop Linux). Trolltech quite visibly exited the last two and recently made hay about joining LiMO at the beginning of this year. The newest addition to the Linux-based knitting circle, OHA/Android, eschews native frameworks entirely, basing its UI on the Dalvek Java dialect (and so not on Qt, either)
  • In 2006, Trolltech released the Greephone , a software and hardware-based mobile prototyping kit. While it received initially positive reviews, it never caught the imagination of the developer and OEM communities. While it boasted “real” phone h/w (instead of ATX or other evaluation board form factors), it offered too little to Tier I OEMs and was too closed to satisfy the yearnings of FOSS developers.
  • Free and Open Source ideologues have never liked Trolltech’s dual license strategy. While KDE (and to a lesser extent Qt itself) enjoy sizable and active development communities, many developers claim they resent having their work taken into Qt and commercialized without gains for themselves.

In light of these and other challenges facing Trolltech, the acquisition by Nokia represents a tidy and lucrative exit strategy.

Benefits for Nokia

In theory, Nokia receives a lot of value for its money and stock: mobile deployments, easy-to-use and ubiquitous Qt technology, and platform software that crosses desktop and mobile platform barriers. But key questions remain:

  • Nokia already invested heavily in Hildon (underlying Maemo), based on GTK, for its 770, N800 and other web tablets. While Trolltech has successfully demo’d Qt and Qtopia on Nokia hardware (as it did at LinuxWorld last year), it seems unlikely that Nokia would change over to Qt.
  • Even if Nokia were interested in Qt and Qtopia for their own sakes, why buy the Troll when you can get Troll tech on reasonable commercial terms?
  • Nokia already has its own smartphone OS and UI – SymbianOS. The company vocally positions SymbianOS as a hedge against Microsoft. Will a second mobile stack strengthen or prune that hedge?

Of course there are other factors to consider, outside of Nokia’s own OEM operations:

  • Motorola has been slow to act on its roadmap to move away from Qt to GTK. Even if Schaumburg negotiated a perpetual license with Trolltech, will Motorola want a key mobile technology to rest in the hands of its number one competitor?
  • The LiMO foundation, founded by Motorola, NTT, NEC, Panasonic, Samsung and Vodaphone, is aligned and allied to counter Nokia’s number one handset supplier status. With Trolltech just having joined LiMO, is Nokia also lining up to combat OHA/Android, or just coverings its bases?
  • Some speculate that Nokia will abolish the commercial branch of Qt, Qtopia and other Trolltech product lines. Would making Qt completely open and free also make it completely ubiquitous?
  • With Trolltech’s acquisition, there is one fewer free-standing open source company that is also public. Besides Red Hat, how many are there?
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