Nokia to Buy Symbian, Dive Headfirst into Open Source

By now, most interested readers have heard the news about Nokia and Symbian:

Substance

  • Nokia to buy the 52.1 percent of Symbian shares it doesn’t already hold
  • Stop paying annual US$250M to other Symbian stakeholders
  • Merge Symbian with S60 organization to create the Symbian Foundation
    • Also covers UIQ and MOAP platforms
  • New entity to launch SymbianOS under EPL

Challenges

Interestingly, the mobile press and blogosphere have been quite reserved in their reception of this “fantastic news”. From my point of view, formation of the Symbian Foundation is GOOD NEWS for the Symbian platform and for mobile open source in general.

However, despite increasing levels of deployment (200M phones in 2007), is not the darling of analysts and pundits, and definitely not the golden child of developers.

The challenges facing Nokia itself and also ahead of the announced Symbian Foundation are numerous and daunting. These challenges organize themselves into three areas:

Technical Challenges

  • Making the new platform easier to program
    • SymbianOS programming model famously complex
  • New platform unwieldy
    • Need to support SymbianOS, S60, UIQ, MOAP and also TrollTech’s Qt/Qtopia in single s/w base
    • Stated goal of backward compatibility could cripple innovation
      • Symbian OS v9 and S60 3rd edition
      • Java, Adobe FlashLite and Microsoft Silverlight
      • Compliance suite will be late

Building A Shared Platform

  • Dilution of Tier I Resources
    • Foundation members LG, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung Electronics, TI and Vodafone already members of LiMo, OHA
    • Are there enough platform developers to go around?
  • Discourage further fragmentation
    • It’s a myth that commercial platforms like SymbianOS and MW WindowsMobile are unitary
    • ISVs already suffer from minor and major fissures in each platform
  • Opening SymbianOS
    • Platform complex mix of IP
    • Could see sigficant delays in opening under EPL
      • Cf. OpenSolaris, Java, Android

Community Challenges

  • Build community beyond orbit of Nokia
    • Open source is not a verb: opening SymbianOS code under EPL does not make it into living, breathing “open source”
    • Building free-standing community for large complex code base is “non trivial”
    • Danger of cutting CAPEX but not enhance ecosystem
  • Engage Broader Audience
    • NA : single digit market share, no mind share
    • SA : price points out of reach for SymbianOS handsets
  • Make Foundation Egalitarian
    • Despite low cost of membership, tilted towards founding/board members

Real Impact

For Nokia and the SymbianOS, this move is either a stroke of genius or a move born of desperation. It will certainly help to lower the cost of entry onto SymbianOS and into the very tidy Symbian ecosystem. Remember, one of the drivers for the swath of mobile Linux initiatives and platforms, and also for continuing investment by Microsoft has been the difficulty of dealing with Symbian and the fear of living in Nokia’s shadow on a platform dominated by the Finnish mobile giant.

Whether it will actually motivate new platform deployments and the rollout of new applications and services is debatable.

Whither Mobile Linux?

Nokia’s announcement concretizes the ongoing balkanization of mobile platforms around consortium-led open source and commercial entities:

  • SymbianOS – Symbian Foundation
  • Android – Open Handset Alliance, built on Linux and neo-Java (Dalvik), led by Google
  • LiMo – The LiMo Foundation, built on Linux and led by Motorola, NTT and other others
  • Windows Mobile – despite Redmond’s “shared source” programs and loud protestations, still a closed proprietary effort
  • iPhone – Based at least partially on open source BSD and dominated by Apple (to say the least). The jury is still out on the impact of the iPhone SDK and as-yet unreleased 2.0 software
  • RIM – the Blackberry platform has a phalanx of even more fanatic users than the iPhone, but is increasingly relegated to niche usage (a lucrative corporate IT niche, but not a growing one)

As with the launch of OpenSolaris, I question whether an open Symbian OS will draw developers away from Linux. Probably not – the new platform will just provide an open basis for developers and ecosystem players already engaged with Nokia/Symbian.

And just as with Sun’s kimono-loosening, the opening of SymbianOS will make it more difficult for many current Symbian ecosystem players to remain profitable, accustomed as they are to 100% proprietary dealings.

Shallow End of the Pool?

Don’t forget that SymbianOS is definitively a smartphone platform, and that smartphones still only occupy about 8-10% of the billion unit global handset market. That’s the shallow end of the mobile swimming pool. Ask yourself, how deep are available developer resources and how boyant is end-user patience?

Watch your head, shareholders!

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