Google Chrome and Android – Why not AndroChrome?

Last week’s buzz over Google’s announcement of its Chrome desktop (and presumably notetop) OS led me and my readers to ask why the Silicon Valley behemoth needs two mobile OSes.  If device OEMs are working to retool, refactor  and deploy Android for netbooks, why can’t Google do the same?

Google’s rationale for launching Chrome as a separate OS from Android centers on differences in visual form factor and connectivity, as aligned with Google’s commercial goals. Google’s building and backing of Android  was motivated by the company’s desire to promulgate its search-and-advertising revenue model to ubiquitous 3G mobile hardware.

While Google could have continued with distribution of  various mobile apps (Maps, etc.) and mobile browser-based search on competing platforms (especially iPhone), the company appears to want to create a more integrated mobile experience and also be able to gather user data uniquely associated with mobile use cases.  Google also needed a mobile OS that had stand-alone, stateful capabilities, given the still-evolving level of connectivity and available bandwidth on 3G networks, especially in North America. Building Android to run Java (Dalvik is J2SE compatible) also gives OEMs deploying the platform the ability to leverage both existing mobile developer expertise (still very Java-centric) as well enterprise and desktop Java-savvy developers.

The desktop, by contrast, already has a working search-and-advertising model at larger visual form factors, but also enjoys high bandwidth connectivity.  For tethered devices with broadband, it makes more sense to build a web-based OS, in this case with the Chrome browser and a stripped down version of Linux.

Google’s choices reflect a dynamic I have documented in some of my recent blog entries, emphasizing that there is a difference in coming “down from notebooks” and “up from handsets”.  As sales of traditional (too soon to say legacy?) desktop PC and fully-loaded notebooks have flattened and perhaps begin to slide, the trend from PC manufacturers has been to cost-down those devices.  A web-based OS for PCs, notebooks and now netbooks supports that trend, requiring less memory, minimal mass storage, and less potent client CPUs (even as multi-core silicon becomes cheaply available).

On the “up from phones” curve, Android supports smarter smartphones, while still being a mobile phone OS (telephony, power management, footprint, LBS, etc.).

I myself do not see a clear point of convergence, just convergent trends.  The key for success for notebooks and netbooks with diminishing provisioning will be Google’s and others’ ability to leverage the cloud. To date, minimalist netbooks, running versions of Linux, have failed to make the jump from local to cloud computing for two reasons:  because PC OEMs and their channels still upsell on specs, leaving space for Microsoft as users opt to extend/mimic the desktop experience with Windows, Office, etc. and more strategically, because the value proposition of the cloud does not yet translate to the average end user.

With all the fuss over Chrome as a gauntlet thrown down to Microsoft, I think these and other basic questions are going unanswered.  I’d be eager to hear your views.

Intel to Acquire Wind River – Embedded Industry Realignment Coming

I woke up this morning to a train of email from friends and fellow pundits, intrigued and even aghast that Intel had announced its intentions of acquiring embedded industry leader Wind River Systems.  The purchase, while very much newsworthy, is not a huge surprise in an industry where low market caps and niche offerings are the rule.

Embedded Systems (or Device Software, as Wind River calls it), as a segment is defined not by its customers, but by the vendor community. Device OEMs self-identify as developers of networking equipment, consumer devices, automotive systems, medical devices, instrumentation, etc. — not “embedded systems” or “device software”.  This perennial identity crisis is part of the reason for my own saw – the embedded market is all tail and no body.

Plumpest Part of a Long Tail

That being said, Wind River has for several decades occupied the most massive part of the tail (closest to the rump) and enjoyed a clear leadership position.  Its revenues for device software have only been rivaled by Microsoft, but only if you add up designs for Windows Mobile, CE, NT/XP Embedded and secondary use of WindowsXP and other desktop/server variants on blades and embedded motherboards.  Not only have they led the overall segment, but their product line revenues also put them at the forefront of the RTOS market (with VxWorks) and the embedded Linux sub-segment (with Wind River Linux).

Wind Historically Blew off x86

One issue with the acquisition, from the embedded software side, is that historically Wind has never garnered the greatest share of its design wins on Intel silicon.  Far more successful, first for VxWorks and later for the company’s Linux offering, have been architectures like ARM, PowerPC (Power Architecture) and MIPS.  In the last year, the major thrust of the company has been towards mobile handsets, with visible investment in Android and LiMo products and services offerings — all built around ARM CPUs.

Certainly the Intel acquisition reflects the investment that the two companies have made in their partnership to promote Atom over the last year, in particular for automotive designs.  To be fair and accurate, Wind River has also enjoyed a number of key design wins on single-board computers and blades with Intel Architecture CPUs, especially for its Carrier Grade Linux implementation, at companies like Nortel.

Intel – Off and On Again with Embedded Silicon

Intel’s acquisition of Wind River follows multiple forays into the embedded market on the silicon side.  Each time they have enjoyed reasonable success but ultimately never took their eyes off their most lucrative businesses, enterprise servers, desktops and notebooks.  A friend at Intel once despaired that their “embedded chips, revenue-wise, were a wart on the butt of desktop and data center”.

While much hype surrounds the Atom family of processors, it is actually the company’s sixth (and probably best) entrant into the embedded processor market:

  1. Of course, the 8008, 8080 and 8085, all originally embedded silicon
  2. 8031 and 8051 CPUs — long-lived 8-bit microcontrollers, in the “pre-software period” of embedded history (assembly only)
  3. Bigger/better 16/32 bit 80860 and 80960 RISC CPUs, which ended up in a mix of storage, graphics and aerospace applications
  4. Repositioning low-end 386 CPUs for SBCs and custom designs
  5. Intel’s expensive and short-lived licensing of ARM cores as XScale mobile applications (PXA), network (IXP) and storage processors (the XScale brand and technology were sold off to Marvell in 2006)

This evolutionary record alone, however, doesn’t not justify the current investment in all thing Atomic, including buying our friends in Alameda.  What does obviously motivate these investments is the slow death of the PC desktop form factor, already manifested as flat desktop silicon sales, the recession notwithstanding.

Metrowerks II?

A friend of mine pointed out a structural similarity in this acquisition to Freescale (then Motorola Semiconductor) buying compiler and tool vendor MetroWerks way back in 1999 (these historical references are showing my age!).  While the analogy is attractive and superficially accurate, key differences include

  • The market caps with Intel and Wind are greater by 10x or more
  • Neither MetroWerks nor Motorola Semiconductor held the clear leadership positions of Wind River and Intel
  • The emergence of Linux and open source (especially GNU tools) led to the decline of MetroWerks CodeWarrier as much as immersion within Motorola

Industry Impact

This type of cross-segment consolidation in theory results in a powerhouse successor company, but also causes rippling realignments among other players, in this case embedded software and silicon suppliers.  The remaining players, traditionally fragmented and balkanized, are sure to build new ties to replace those with Intel and Wind, and to construct bulwarks against them.

Obvious question arising from the acquisition include

  • To what degree will Intel management constrain Wind River, over time, to focus on Intel architectures?
  • How successful will Atom be in volume applications beyond netbooks?  How will acquiring Wind help with designs for in-car, in-home, in-hand and in-strumentation?
  • Can Wind River retain international mega-customers like NEC and Samsung, whose semiconductor subsidiaries compete head-on with Intel?
  • Will embedded software companies like Embedded Alley, GreenHills, LynuxWorks, MontaVista, QNXTimeSys, et al. even continue to support Intel silicon with RTOS and embedded Linux offerings?  Are they sufficiently agile and creative to take advantage of opportunities created by the acquisition, or will they be swamped by it?
  • Will ARM and MIPS and their licensees, as well as Freescale and AMCC with Power Architecture, win or lose designs?  Can Atom compete with 1B+ annual ARM shipments?
  • What other consolidation will follow on this heels of interesting turn of events?

The recession has put enormous pressure on the players in embedded and mobile ecosystem.  It’s not that large a club and not that well capitalized.  More shoes will shortly drop, heads will roll.  Stay tuned.

The Path to a Linux Netbook Comeback – Look to Google Android

Last week, I made a case for rethinking the role of Linux in mobile computing all together – eschewing the endless game of catchup inherent in the desktop/notebook market (as it applies to increasingly able netbooks), that Linux-based netbooks need to look Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks.

Readers responded, most interestingly to debate whether netbook vendors ever really wanted to ship Linux as a long-term solution, or whether ASUS and others had just “run up the Linux flag” as a way to get Redmond to negotiate better price points.

I was happy to read that Matt Asay saw potential for mobile Linux-based devices as I still do – his Open Road blog entry “Hit Microsoft where it ain’t” is definitely worth reading, as is Dana Blankenhorn’s ZDnet blog on “Linux and the Channel“.  Sam Dean narrows the discussion from the whole channel down to the essential issue of product differentiation in his thoughtful blog entry “Linux Netbooks – What’s the secret sauce for sales?

But is it really too late for Linux on Netbooks?

Is this potentially vibrant new marketplace doomed to share the fate of desktop Linux? Real hope lies in learning from the desktop debacle and re-inventing the open source OSS as a first-class service delivery vehicle.  In that vein, I have listed some suggestions for netbook manufacturers, purveyors of Linux and the developer community:

Focus on integrating into operator programs

Even if you think that operators face disintermediation and dumb-pipe obsolescence, they still “own” the networks and are the drivers of current and next-generation rollout. They also represent a channel focused on service delivery as opposed to desktop hardware and accompanying expectations for margins etc.

Build on handset design concepts, not desktop expectations

If consumers wanted a Linux desktop experience, they’d have long since bought into actual desktops running Ubuntu and other consumer friendly distros. By contrast, Linux actually provides the foundation for a swath of very successful handsets, from the Motorola Ming, which handily captured a full percent of the Chinese mobile market – that’s 30-40 million units for a single handset model – to NEC Panasonic handsets in Japan to current generation Motorola ROKRs and RAZRs and the exploding market of Android-based devices.

Consumers buy and use these devices not because they run free software in general or Linux in particular, but because they deliver operator services in stylish and functional packages.

Focus on user experience, not just BoM

Even if operators are intent on squeezing costs to preserve services margins, Linux-based mobile devices must still provide compelling user experiences. Put aside the KDE vs. GNOME debate and focus on helping both operators and ISVs deliver applications – in this space the competition isn’t Windows, it’s the iPhone apps store, it’s Blackberry enterprise integration and outside the US, it’s the SymbianOS ecosystem.

Rather than focus on the “mobile desktop”, provide applications resources for rich graphics, multimedia, gesture-based MMI, skinning, and personalization in a netbook-sized package.

Look to Android as netbook platform

Many Linux purists dismiss Android as the insidious invention of the Google Borg and as a shiny tomb for the Linux kernel buried inside it. However, it may be the only viable vector for bringing Linux and open source to programmable mass-market devices. Android is cropping up everywhere – originally targeted to appeal to Tier II and III Asian handset OEMs and ODMs, it now constitutes the core of platform strategies at Tier I mobile suppliers like Samsung, Motorola, and LG. More importantly, Android caters to operator requirements for a services-centric customizable user experience.

Whether or not you like Android for its own sake, it creates opportunities for partnership among Google, operators, ISVs/OSVs, and other third parties. As a platform and a phenomenon it is building bridges across market chasms once considered unspannable. Just consider HTC, once a bastion of Windows Mobile handsets. The Taiwanese OEM is today the first and leading provider on phones based on Android.

Google, OHA members and others have also telegraphed their plans to deploy Android as a netbook OS. Early rumblings have emerged from Freescale for a $199 netbook based on their i.MX CPU, and other mobile-savvy semiconductor suppliers like TI and Marvell are likely to follow suit with their ARM-based offerings. Artesian efforts have also surfaced, demonstrating Android ported to currently available netbooks like the ASUS Eee PC.

Android Beyond Mobile

Android for operator-subsidized netbooks will also gain momentum and credibility from related deployment and crossover onto other content delivery devices, like digital TVs, set-top boxes, DVRs, satellite receivers and automotive in-vehicle infotainment systems.  Earlier this week Embedded Alley announced delivery of a development system targeting MIPS-based devices.  MIPS Technologies and their architecture licensee RMI also announced plans for Android support.

As always, I appreciate reader comments and feedback.  I am especially interested what readers think of the current state of Android and its chances for success in mobile devices and beyond.

In the next and final segment of this topic, I will talk about trends in the underlying mobile processors, and then zoom right up to the synergies among netbooks, Linux and the Cloud.

Netbooks: Up from Phones, Not Down from Notebooks

Last week I began a discussion of whether Linux will survive as an OS for netbooks.  I received a number of comments, some highlighting which netbook OEMs favored which Linux distros, other despairing at the paucity of verifiable market numbers (a distress that I share).  One reader pointedly chastised me not to

“overlook the fact that, after being caught off guard by netbooks, MS bent over backwards to get XP-based netbooks on the shelves. Then, they forced the Linux netbooks off the shelves with exclusivity agreements and strong-arm tactics. It’s rather difficult to sell Linux-based netbooks when the retail outlets have been bullied by MS to only stock XP-based netbooks.”

I am actually keenly aware of Redmond’s “negotiating skills”.  In the mid-1990s, while I was at Acer Latin America,  our entire group was audited by Microsoft.  It seemed that our mix of DOS, Windows and Windows for Workgroups was too skewed towards the command line for Redmond’s bottom line.   Our channels licensed a lot of DOS, principally to enable installation of Netware, UNIX and yes, also Linux, especially in Brazil where I was based.  The audit lasted three months and actually shut down several of Acer’s smaller regional subsidiaries. We “got the point” but didn’t change our OS mix until Window95 appeared a year later.

Mobile Phone (Volume) Lust
I think that one strategic error made by purveyors of Linux netbooks was to covet the volumes of the global mobile telephony market while following the business models and channels of the legacy notebook marketplace.  Linux fans – .orgs, Linux ISVs and device OEMS – unfortunately approached the netbook opportunity as a downward extension of the desktop and portable PC business, with volumes of 297M units in 2008 (IDC).

Instead, the Linux ecosystem needs to envision netbooks (and MIDs and tablets) as building on the worldwide mobile handset business, with its 1.28B annual unit shipments (Gartner) the most lucrative slice of which, smart phones, constitutes 14% (ABI) with 20% annual growth rates.
The structure and dynamics of the mobile handset market depart from the PC business on several parameters:

  • End users (a majority in the US) acquire their devices from service providers, not from the retail channels favored by PCs and notebooks
  • Mobile operators and carriers view handsets first as service delivery vehicles and second as applications platforms
  • Operators subsidize handset acquisition costs, making up their margins over multi-year service contracts

This time-worn model is beginning to break down, however, challenged by flat and falling voice revenues, encroaching VoIP services from “virtual” network operators, and surging EDGE and 3G data traffic that threatens to overwhelm existing network capacity.
As a means to preserve flagging ARPUs (Average Revenue Per User), mobile operators and regional carriers are accelerating next-generation (4G) rollout, emphasizing data, not voice, on WiMax and soon on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) in select markets, as well as experimenting with pure data business models over existing WiFi access points.  Most interestingly, after lackluster efforts of marketing WiMax and WiFi network interface cards to existing notebook owners, operators like ATT, T-Mobile and Verizon are instead following their historical playbook and bundling Linux-based netbooks with data services subscriptions through their own channels.
This bundling, unlike CE/Retail channels, actually has the ability to leverage the presumed virtues of Linux-based netbooks:

  • Lightweight BoM further subsidized by data plan subscriptions
  • Greater opportunity for operators to preserve and build on brand equity and differentiate through custom applications and services (as with mobile phones)
  • Built-in network access and ability to leverage the Cloud

Such programs have the further charm of driving 3G+/4G revenue in the short and mid-term preserving ARPUs with data (rather than voice) and for building subscriber loyalty.

But will operators build out the mainsream versions of these programs using Linux-based devices?  Can developers and purveyors of Linux sieze this opportunity and stay in the netbook game?  Let me know what you think as we continue this discussion next week.

Will Linux Survive on Netbooks?

Linux on netbooks.  What a concept!  Same great experience, but less filling.  Not!

What a difference a year makes.  After initial unbridled enthusiasm in 2008, Linux-based netbooks, MIDs and similar devices are taking a beating, delivered by, you guessed it — Microsoft. Consumers avoid Linux netbooks, manufacturers despair over immovable inventory – only free software enthusiasts seem ready to adopt these orphaned devices.
So why isn’t 2009 the “Year of Mobile Linux”? On paper, the case for deploying Linux on netbooks and MIDs looks compelling:

  • Lower Bill of Materials (B0M), both from shedding the “Windows Tax” and from more minimal provisioning of DRAM, HDD and client-based applications
  • More flexible system architecture – no lock-in to the “Wintel-PC virtual machine”
  • Customizable look-and-feel for OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) eager to distance their brand from Microsoft
  • Ability to leverage web apps (like Google’s) and emerging Cloud Computing resources

Marketplace reality quickly proved that the best-laid plans of OEMs and ISVs often go awry.  In the first half of 2008, OEM enthusiasm for Linux-based netbooks was so great that Windows (XP and CE) garnered only 10% of the pre-installed market.  By Q1 of 2009, Windows had come back with a vengeance, boasting 96% of netbooks shipping with Windows-family OSes (Source: NPD Group).
Linux Netbooks appear to be doomed to repeat the sad history of desktop Linux.  However “free” netbook Linux may be, consumers have not found it sufficiently compelling to leap across the historical functionality gap (perceived or real) from Windows.  Moreover, as netbook capabilities creep up on low-end notebook specs, consumers expect to be able to run familiar Office applications, and to browse, view and play web sites and multimedia content just as they do on Windows desktops.
Despite significant advances in content handling over earlier generations of desktop Linux, netbook end-users found Linux-based devices unwieldy and apparently unreliable. Not only did new device sales falter, but buyers returned the devices in droves.
Quite simply, the rationale for Linux-based netbooks proved irrational in the real world:

  • Leveraging Linux for a lighter BoM (Bill of Materials) proved less appealing when Microsoft cut XP licensing fees and ever-cheaper memory, storage and CPUs closed much of the notebook-netbook capability gap.
  • Netbooks with full PCI buses and other PC-like capabilities eased XP installation, especially for OEMs already familiar with notebook design, like Taiwanese ASUS and Acer.  Asian Tigers, while adopting Linux for more deployed embedded applications, are still more comfortable with Redmondware for mass-market consumer products.
  • Consumer reaction to first-generation netbook-centric look-and-feel proved unenthusiastic.  Ubuntu, while a great Linux desktop, failed to impress mass market users; Moblin 1.0 wasn’t ready for prime-time and Mobile 2.0 arriving in 2009, was too late.
  • Netbooks intended to leverage emerging Cloud Computing relied on the vagaries of end-user network and cloud access, sending consumers scurrying back to client-based productivity software on better-provisioned Windows-based devices.

The combination of these factors, when pushed through multi-tier consumer product sales channels, proved to be a retail nightmare and a dead end for Linux and Open Source.

Next week I’ll again pick up this topic, comparing how Linux the mobile Linux dynamic differs depending on whether you come “down from notebooks” or “up from mobile phones”.

Mobile Conference at OpenSource World 2009 – Call for Papers

Mobile Conference at OpenSource World™ 2009
Aug 10-13 San Francisco CA
Call for Papers Now Open – Mobile Platforms and Applications and More

OpenSource World Conference & Expo 2009 is the largest and most
comprehensive event for open source software and all things Linux. An
expansion of LinuxWorld Conference & Expo®, the conference presents the
latest Linux and open source ideas in a very technical context by
industry experts and innovators. OpenSource World focuses on real-world
solutions in real-world environments using open source, open standards
and open architecture as part of an integrated IT infrastructure.

The Mobile Conference at OpenSource World extends these themes into the
domain of mobile platforms and applications.  The Mobile Conference at
OpenSource World is divided into two tracks and welcomes submissions in
the following areas (and is open to your suggestions as well):

TRACK I – PLATFORMS

  • Android, LiMo, Maemo, Moblin, OpenMoko and other Linux-based open source mobile platforms
  • Open SymbianOS
  • Shared Source around WindowsMobile
  • Browsers and Browser-based platforms – Mozilla/Gecko, Webkit, Pre, etc.
  • Open Source Java platforms
  • Application Frameworks – GTK, Enlightenment, Qt, etc.
  • Emerging form factors – MIDs, voice-enabled nettops, etc.
  • State of key platforms technologies – power management,  multi-core support, virtualization, etc.
  • Building and sustaining communities around mobile platforms
  • Platform licensing choices and impact

TRACK II – MOBILE APPLICATIONS

  • Mobile application development tools and techniques
  • Comparing application frameworks and paradigms
  • End-to-end applications development and deployment
  • Enterprise mobile application development, rollout and management
  • State of OSS applications technologies – VoIP, multimedia, etc.
  • Content and content management with open source software
  • Mobile application delivery
  • Working with operators, application stores and other channels
  • Licensing of mobile applications and content

Submit your speaking proposal TODAY online

Deadline for submissions is February 20, 2009

Guidelines

Focus proposals to offer attendees information, tools and inspiration to
accomplish mobile open source.  Please DO NOT focus proposals on a
commercial product or propose a marketing pitch, but rather open source
software and technology.

We look forward to your participation in OpenSource World 2009!

The Mobile Conference at LinuxWorld Program Committee

  • Bill Weinberg, LinuxPundit.com
  • Andreas Constantinou, VisionMobile.com
  • Rick Lehrbaum, DeviceGuru.com

Intel and Taiwan Inc. Partner for OSS Research, WiMAX Rollout

Intel announced today that the sultan of silicon will partner with the Taiwanese government and invest in the Republic’s IT industry to launch a Software Development Center for Open Source mobile devices.  Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini indicated that the company had inked a formal agreement with the Taiwan Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA).  Together, Intel and ROC ministry staff will establish a lab for enabling Intel’s Linux-based Moblin platform, as well as other open source software, targeting devices built around the Intel Atom processor.  Simultaneously, the company’s venture arm, Intel Capital, will invest NT$386M (US$11.5M) in Taiwanese carrier VMAX to support deployment of Taiwan’s first mobile WiMax network during 1H/2009.

This move by Intel has something in it for for everyone:  it benefits Intel, helping to consolidate the position of newly-minted mobile/embedded Atom CPUs.  It helps Taiwanese OEMs, who quickly launched Atom-based devices (many based on WindowsXP), but who are scrambling for availability of richer (and cheaper) Linux-based software stacks with more extensive localization and local value-added through software.  It’s a good deal for Taiwanese consumer, who’ll enjoy high-bandwidth wireless access together with blazing data and streaming media.  And the goodness ripples out across the Taiwan Straights and the Pacific Ocean and behond, since Taiwan-based rollouts of new ideas and gadgets open markets for cost-down, high-volume versions of the same technologies and devices off the island and over the horizon.

This double-whammy announcement gives hope to fans of the MID and mutes its critics – Intel is serious about the MID as more than a collection of empty sockets to fill.  Industry analysts project Atom-based MIDs will climb to worldwide shipments of 86M+ units by 2013. Certainly more potential than the beleaguered Linux desktop, and interesting volumes in their own right, but still a mere ripple in the global mobile pond when compared with today’s billion-plus volumes for 2.5/3G handsets.

Endowing the nascent MID class with a gushing fat WiMAX pipe, combined with software interoperability with desktop and server Linux, opens this converged platform to dizzying new possibilities. Milliwatt-consumption Atoms loaded with with Linux-based Moblin, connected to the Cloud via high speed WiMAX add charm and substance to Intel’s vision for MIDs.  I like the idea of long-lived, well-provisioned, connected mobile devices with always on, always available multimedia and social networking.

Now if only my middle-aged fingers were dexterous enough to use their tiny keyboards and my aging eyes were up to reading MIDs’ high resolution displays . . . I’ll leave that part to Generation MID.

Conspicuous by its absence in the announcement is the subject of VOICE.  Intel positions MIDs precisely as “Mobile Internet Devices”.  However, the MID form factor overlaps the spec and size for many of today’s 2,5G
and 3G smartphones (e.g., from Taiwanese HTC who build WindowsMobile handsets, and starting in October, Google/Android G1 devices). Moreover, WiMAX is not merely a WiFi replacement, but rather a
longer-haul WAN technology.  WiMAX is a technology that forms the backbone of announced 4G rollouts by carriers like Sprint, ClearWire, Packet 1, UQ and other Intel partners. So, developing open source
software for WiMAX-enabled MIDs could very well support a revolution not just in data and multimedia, but in voice-based communications. OSS-powered MIDs and WiMAX could extend today’s operator-licensed
paradigms or re-invent person-to-person communication with point-to-point voice and video over WiMAX and also the establishment of non-traditional operator networks – MVNOs with enterprise, academic and
community backing.

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!

Finland Needs Trolls

How Trolltech Complements Nokia Internal and External Technology

Upon reflection, gossip-mongering, and even more reflection, the Nokia acquisition of Trolltech begins to make more sense.

Look Beyond Maemo

Maemo, the applications platform that runs on Nokia 770/N800 and family, bases its Hildon UI framework on GTK. the main open source rival to Trolltech Qt. These web pads and the software that drives them are a market experiment for Nokia, albeit a strategic experiment. They’ve evidently had as much internal impact with the Finnish mobile giant as they have outside, in particular they’ve

  • engendered (additional) rivalry among Nokia divisions focused on Linux (web tablets, Nokia networks) and those who build SymbianOS and legacy-based phone-ware (S40, S60 et al)
  • heightened internal perceptions of platform fragmentation and given urgency to calls for cross-platform compatibility (which Qt offers, crossing over embedded and desktop OSes)
  • highlighted the need within Nokia for more ubiquitous FOSS and Linux competence

Motorola Impact

Did Nokia take out a key Motorola mobile supplier to stymie their mobile competitor? Probably not. Just like the folks in Redmond, Nokia spends its time worrying about Apple and Google. It’s hard to argue with that sensibility: Tampere is better served by looking ahead, worrying about threats to come instead of troubled competitors, over whom they leapfrogged long ago.

Nokia and Trolltech: Out loud and on the Qt


Bill Weinberg, LinuxPundit.com — Reposted from ActiveAnalysis.net

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 maemo.org 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?