Nokia's Symbian Deal Rewrites The Smartphone Rules

Jun 27, 2008 (08:06 PM EDT)

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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.

IT needs beter ways to manage all the handhelds in use in the enterprise.
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.

Windows Mobile almost certainly will remain a proprietary mobile operating system that can't be as easily altered as open source software. To counter this move, count on Microsoft taking steps similar to those it has taken to compete with Linux. For one, it brings formidable co-marketing budgets for Windows Mobile phones to drive sales for handset manufacturers and mobile carriers. In the fight for developers, while open source might give Symbian developers greater access, "developers are in Microsoft's DNA," says Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, pointing to the 18,000 Windows Mobile apps already created. Rockfeld also contends that Windows Mobile can provide consistency that open source software can't, such as interoperability across all distributions.

Microsoft also aims to make Windows Mobile part of a larger, integrated experience, connecting its dominant desktop software with Windows Mobile and Windows Live to make Windows Mobile more compelling to potential buyers, though it must tread carefully because of regulators wary of Microsoft's desktop monopoly.

RIM and Apple would face their own challenges as proprietary systems that draw benefit from tight integration of their hardware and software platforms, while needing to be open to new apps. Palm also ties hardware and software, but it's developing a Linux-based successor to the current Palm OS. Open source Symbian takes some wind out of Google Android's sails, since it promised developer openness and zero cost, though Google issued a statement supporting the move.

All this hinges on the Symbian Foundation successfully managing what Nokia is promising: an OS thrown open to developers, including a malleable user interface and addressable low-level code.

The Symbian Foundation faces a huge governance challenge, as Linux's success shows. Zemlin notes the Linux Foundation is pushing developers of Linux distributions to adhere to standards on lower-level functionality, so software labeled "for Linux" will work across distributions. That's needed as mobile Linux sprawls from Google Android's full operating system and user interface to the LiMo Foundation's Linux-based middleware. Pieces of the LiMo Platform are in the Motorola Razr and Rockr today, and more than 50 members, including Symbian Foundation backers Motorola and Samsung, are involved with LiMo.

But if Nokia and the Symbian Foundation can pull off the transition and use open source to grow market share and fend off formidable rivals, it just might drive open source broadly to new heights. While much remains to be seen, a free, open source Symbian undoubtedly will alter the discourse about mobile operating systems and open source development in general.

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Symbian's Success Hinges On Community Involvement