Jun 27, 2008 (08:06 PM EDT)
Nokia's Symbian Deal Rewrites The Smartphone Rules

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The goal is the world's most-used software, Forsyth says

The goal is the world's most-used software, Forsyth says
Symbian, the most popular smartphone mobile operating system worldwide, is going open source, part of a struggle between hardware and software companies for influence in a critical industry segment. The move is sure to affect businesses exploring ways to push more applications onto smartphones, and it could influence the role of open source software generally.

Nokia, the world's largest mobile phone maker, is driving the plan. Already a 48% stakeholder in Symbian Ltd., Nokia is buying the company's remaining shares for $410 million and pledges to make Symbian open source under the royalty-free Eclipse Public License. Symbian's development--including continued twice-a-year new releases--will be guided by a foundation supported by an alliance of mobile device manufacturers, chipmakers, and carriers.

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For businesses, the move raises several critical issues. On the upside, it's possible companies will wind up with cheaper phones--the Symbian OS today costs manufacturers about $4, while Microsoft charges about $15 for Windows Mobile per phone. A free mobile OS could ramp up price competition. On the downside, IT departments could face a tougher battle trying to contain the number of smartphone platforms they're asked to support, if open source leads to more variations of the Symbian OS.

Perhaps more important to businesses is whether an open source Symbian leads to more applications and faster innovation for smartphones, at a time when companies are exploring whether and how to push more tasks through ever-more-powerful smartphones. By 2010, when Symbian goes open source, the evolving mobile development community will gain deeper access to Symbian and, in theory, be able to create more compelling applications.

"What it really means is that we're at an early stage of a full-scale war for becoming the next development platform for mobile devices," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation, which guides Linux development by employing key developers and setting standards.

The goal of Nokia and its allies is clear. "We want to make this the most widely used software platform on the planet," says John Forsyth, Symbian's VP for strategy. The new alliance, called the Symbian Foundation, includes Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, AT&T, and Vodafone. Those companies likely won't give up their use or support of other mobile operating systems such as Windows Mobile, but Nokia's move puts new pressures on Symbian's competitors.

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Smartphones are the industry's plum growth market, and Symbian commanded 67% of the worldwide market share last year, according to research firm Canalys. However, Symbian has less than 10% share in the United States, where Research In Motion, Microsoft, and now Apple set the agenda. It also has just 6% of the market for lower-end phones. Among the major U.S. carriers, only AT&T even offers any Symbian devices, while Sprint, Verizon, and Alltel can't even offer them since theirs aren't GSM networks.

In banding together, handset makers are making it clear that they don't want a repeat of the PC industry handing over their destiny to American software makers, where Microsoft and recently Google, with its plans for an open source Android operating system, look formidable. In addition, given broad membership that encompasses chipmakers as well as handset producers, the alliance could solve thorny standards issues that often result in incompatibilities between networks and devices.