The already crowded open source mobile phone software market just got more
Nokia has announced plans to open
up the Symbian operating
system. Symbian currently has the biggest installed base of any mobile
OS, which makes this announcement somewhat more surprising—market leaders
generally do not radically change their successful methods. What it means
for the various Linux mobile phone initiatives is unclear, but it certainly
shakes things up a bit.
Nokia, along with many of the biggest players in the mobile phone market,
has formed the Symbian
Foundation to provide its members with the OS on a royalty-free basis.
Several other components are being donated to the foundation as well, to
create a complete
platform for mobile applications. The plan is for all of the code to be
released using the Eclipse Public License over the next two years.
In order to own the code, Nokia is purchasing the 52% of Symbian Limited
that it does not currently own for more than $400 million. This will allow
Nokia to donate Symbian, along
with its S60 smartphone platform, which runs atop Symbian, to the
foundation. Sony Ericsson and
Motorola will donate their UIQ user interface layer, while NTT DoCoMo will
donate its Mobile Oriented Application Platform (MOAP).
Nearly two dozen companies have come together to form the foundation,
including handset makers, mobile carriers, and chip manufacturers.
there is substantial overlap between Symbian Foundation members and those
of the Open Handset
Alliance—the umbrella organization for Google's Android
effort—and the LiMo Foundation.
Whether this reflects impatience with the pace of Android/LiMo development or
effort to hedge their bets remains to be seen.
Membership in the foundation is open to all who are willing to pay the
$1500 annual membership fee. That fee will allow the use of all of the
components that make up the Symbian platform on a royalty-free basis.
Any developers that wish to create software for the platform need not join
as there will be a developer program available at no charge. The
foundation is expected to start operations in 2009.
Opening up Symbian is seen as a reaction to Android and other free software
efforts in the mobile phone space. One of the advantages touted for Linux
solutions is the zero cost—particularly the lack of per-unit
royalties. By moving Symbian to this model, the foundation undercuts that
advantage. Because Symbian is already a dominant player in the smartphone
market—with a large development community—there are some who
believe it will redirect efforts currently focused on Linux to Symbian.
That remains to be seen, of course, but Linux-based smartphones are still
in their infancy. MontaVista's Mobilinux has been installed in more than
35 million mobile devices, mostly in Asian markets, but, perhaps because of
it being controlled by a single company, hasn't really generated a large
developer community. It may also be targeting mobile carriers who are not
very interested in allowing users to customize their phones—at least
not to the extent Android and others envision.
There is a widening rift between the "free" and "locked down" camps for
mobile devices. With this move, Nokia—and the other foundation
members—seem to be moving toward allowing
users more freedom, though undoubtedly some handset makers and carriers
will opt for locking down their phones regardless of the openness of the
underlying OS. One need look no further than the iPhone
for an example of a tightly controlled application environment that is, at
least so far, very popular with consumers.
In the long run, it is hard to imagine that mobile device users will be
willing to stick with the limited choices of applications provided by their
carrier or phone maker. As more open alternatives become available, there
will be a pushback
from handset buyers that will be harder for the carriers to resist. For
many, their mobile phone is the most sophisticated computer they own and
the history of personal computers would indicate that a thriving ecosystem
of the third-party applications is an important part of the purchasing
decision. That requires developers.
The current proliferation of open mobile phone software platforms is, in
many ways, a battle for developer mindshare. LiMo, Android, and OpenMoko are all
Linux-based development platforms that support multiple hardware devices,
which should allow applications to run on many different mobile devices
with minimal porting. How well that works in practice is still an open
For many of the established players in the mobile device market, Symbian is
a known quantity. It has shipped on countless devices—its strengths and
weaknesses are well understood. Turning it into a free software release
will allow, at least potentially, members to move the Symbian code in the
direction they want.
But will that stop, or substantially slow down, the
adoption of Linux-based solutions?
In order for that to happen, Symbian
itself will need some kind of developer community, something like what
currently exists for the kernel and user space applications on Linux.
Whether the opening of the code will be enough to attract that community is
an open question. It may be that developers at the member companies will
be forced to form that community—something that could affect the bottom line.
One of the key problems that the various Linux-based efforts face is that
of fragmentation. The vendors of royalty-based mobile
platforms—primarily Microsoft and Palm—tend to point to the
multiple incompatible Linux efforts as proof. They tout the control that a
single vendor provides to ensure compatibility. Others, like Apple and RIM
(maker of Blackberry email phones), do not license their software to others
so they tightly control the hardware, which tends to avoid fragmentation.
Within a particular initiative, fragmentation is likely to be a very bad
thing, but having multiple platform choices tends to provide healthy
thus help consumers. Over time, some of the current Linux-based platforms
may fall by the wayside to leave fewer choices, but that will likely
happen due to technical considerations, part of which will be determined by
the third-party application developers.
One questions remains though: what happens with Qt, or more specifically
Phone Edition? Nokia bought Trolltech early this year, at least
partially for their mobile toolkit. Will they port it to Symbian and
donate it to the foundation? They could, of course, port it but keep it
separate, but that would seem to lead down the path toward fragmentation.
It seems somewhat unlikely that they would
change Trolltech's successful hybrid of GPL and commercial licenses, but
before this announcement few thought that Symbian would be freed. Nokia
has certainly adopted a more open-friendly stance of late—they
clearly see it as a way to generate more business—so it certainly is
not out of the realm of possibility.
While opening up Symbian may inhibit Linux adoption on mobile devices, it
can only be seen as a good thing for consumers and the free software
community as a whole. In many ways, it validates the free software
along with the idea of freedom for users and developers. The competition
between Linux and Symbian will also likely help both improve. Expect lots
of interesting devices and applications in the next few years because of
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