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When Nokia announced Tuesday morning that it would not only buy the rest of the Symbian mobile operating system, but also make it available for free and eventually open source it under the Eclipse Public License, there's no doubt competitors took note. Despite a smattering of applause from the Linux camps, there's no indication that any are ready to cede even more market share to the market leader.
"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," Jim Zemlin, who runs the Linux Foundation, said in an interview. "This stuff tends to winnow out into a few winners. Symbian is upping the stakes, offering its platform for free in order to draw more people into their alliance. These alliances are often self amplifying."
If nothing else, Nokia's moves to make Symbian a free and open mobile operating system should put pressure on the company's competitors to keep innovating and giving customers -- device manufacturers, consumers, and carriers alike -- what they want. Nokia said Tuesday that it aims to make Symbian -- already the top smartphone operating system -- the "most widely used software platform on the planet."
For its part, Microsoft is standing firm. Unlike Nokia's strategy for Symbian, Microsoft Windows Mobile remains a proprietary mobile operating system that costs money. It costs to put Windows Mobile on a smartphone, and Windows Mobile can't just be altered willy nilly. However, in exchange, Microsoft co-markets Windows Mobile phones as a way to drive sales for handset manufacturers and mobile carriers.
In an interview, the company attempted to minimize the challenges a free, open source version of Symbian represents and maximize the potential challenges Symbian itself faces. "In the short term, it doesn't seem like it's such a change," Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, said in an interview.
It's unclear whether device manufacturers will want to continue paying high fees for Windows Mobile license when the market leader suddenly cut costs to zero. Over the longer term -- by 2010, Nokia says -- Symbian will become open source and throw its doors open to developers, including a malleable user interface, and addressable low level code, in ways that Microsoft can't approach.
However, Rockfeld cited projections that Windows Mobile will have sold 20 million licenses by the end of the year, a more than 100% growth rate year over year, as well as the fact that there are more than 18,000 Windows Mobile applications now floating around, as evidence that Microsoft has a sustainable business model. "Developers are in Micorsoft's DNA," he said.
Another familiar line of argument: Microsoft can make Windows Mobile a part of a larger, integrated experience, leveraging its desktop user base to make Windows Mobile more compelling to consumers. The company has said that going forward, Windows Mobile, Windows, and Windows Live will be increasingly connected or easy to connect.
"When you look at the consumer space and the business space, they're familiar with the experience around Windows and they'll always be interested in one plus one equals three," Rockfeld said. What he didn't mention, however, was that any attempt to tether the three platforms together by default and without other choices will likely be met by the closely watching eyes of regulators wary of Microsoft's desktop monopoly.
As for the open sourcing of Symbian, Microsoft takes a tack it has taken with Linux in the past, arguing that Windows Mobile can provide a consistency that open source software can't. "They're going to be introduced to some of the same challenges some other open source endeavors have encountered, such as fragmentation," Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, said in an interview. "There seems to be more Linux consortiums than there are users of Linux."
Linux -- since Rockfeld used it as a parallel -- has long struggled to gain a sense of consistency across its distributions, though the Linux Foundation continues to make strides in pushing for standards across the different Linux distributions. According to Zemlin, the Symbian Foundation could take similar steps: define opens standard based on Symbian, write a test framework to validate with that standard, create app tools to write to the standard, and create a trademark like Symbian Certified that indicates compliance. Nokia also likely made a conscious choice to make Symbian available under the Eclipse Public License, not the less restrictive General Public License.
Still, as of today there are a number of mobile Linux consortiums, each working on their own Linux-based mobile projects. Google, with Android, is working on a full operating system with user interface, and others like the LiMo Foundation are working to make a series of Linux-based middleware components like a cell phone's telephony framework and messaging framework available.
Conventional wisdom might be that open source Symbian could be a major blow to Google Android because Google's main value proposition was to be its openness to developers, but Google disagrees.
"Openness fosters innovation, benefiting consumers," Google said in a short statement responding to Nokia's announcement. "We're very pleased to see other major players in the mobile industry moving in this direction." The more open any software platform gets (not just Symbian and Android), the more hooks Google has to sell advertising on those platforms.
Pieces of the LiMo Platform are available today in the Motorola Razr and Rockr in the United States, and more than 50 members including Motorola and Samsung are involved. While LiMo director of global marketing said in an interview that he welcomed Nokia's embrace of openness, he questioned their ability or willingness to carry through.
"What we saw today was a press release, but I think the devil could be in the details," he said. He questioned how open the governance of Symbian's development would be, and whether the manufacturing industry would be uncomfortable with Nokia's potentially increased role in that development.
The Linux Foundation's Zemlin, whose dog in the race would be several Linux distributions, notes several potential trouble spots for Symbian. One is interoperability with legacy Symbian applications, which could hurt Symbian's next version for much the same reason Windows Vista has been held back by businesses and consumers alike. Also, while mobile Linux culls its code from across the computing spectrum (it runs on DVRs, desktops, embedded systems, etc.) Symbian won't have the same level of input, relying instead only on the smaller universe of developers who know mobile software.
Despite the competitive challenge, he said, the decision to open source Symbian could play in LiMo's favor. Symbian's dominance inherently moves the conversation about open source from a debate on the merits of openness to one on the tactics of openness, Shikiar said. "It's really what the industry needs, more commitment to openness and collaboration," he said.
But Microsoft and Linux aren't Nokia's only targets. The iPhone continues its rise, and BlackBerry addicts keep typing away. RIM said it typically does not comment on competitors' actions, but will undoubtedly be pressed to do so during its quarterly earnings call Wednesday afternoon. Palm also declined comment, while Apple did not respond to requests.