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Symbian, the company behind the popular proprietary mobile/embedded operating system of the same name, just turned 10, but it won't see its next birthday. Nokia, which had long owned a substantial portion of Symbian, announced today that it would be buying the rest of the company, 52% for about &euro264 million, or approximately $410 million. In addition to purchasing Symbian, Nokia says it will be open-sourcing the Symbian operating system.
In a press call from London, Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo said that Nokia will place the code in the hands of a new vendor-neutral organization: The Symbian Foundation. This isn't just a nod toward working with an open source development community. Besides Nokia, organizations such as AT&T, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Texas Instruments, and more than a dozen other companies are investing in the new open Symbian.
On the call, Kallasvuo said, "This is a significant milestone in our software strategy. Symbian is already the leading open platform for mobile devices. Through this acquisition and the establishment of the Symbian Foundation, it will undisputedly be the most attractive platform for mobile innovation. This will drive the development of new and compelling Web-enabled applications to delight a new generation of consumers."
According to sources at Nokia, code will be released to the public for the first time in either the last quarter of 2008 or the first quarter of 2009. All of Symbian OS and its development tools will be made available by 2010. At this time, Nokia and its Symbian Foundation allies plans on releasing the program under the Eclipse Public License 1.0.
Nokia has recently shown a great deal of interest in acquiring and supporting open source projects. On June 18, Nokia completed its acquisition of Trolltech, the company behind the Qt application development framework, which in turn is the foundation of the popular KDE Linux desktop environment. Nokia has already announced plans to use Qt in Maemo, the Linux-based operating system it uses on its N8x series of Linux tablets.
Nokia declined to comment on whether it would provide developers with the tools needed to integrate Qt on top of Symbian. However, Symbian has long served as the underpinnings for several palmtop interfaces, including Nokia's own S60, Sony Ericsson's UIQ, and NTT/DoCoMo's MOAP (Mobile Oriented Applications Platform). Thus, bringing a KDE-style interface to Symbian phones and mobile devices should be relatively easy. Nokia also announced that it would be releasing S60 to the Foundation. Sony Ericsson and Motorola will be contributing at least some UIQ code to the cause, and NTT/DocoMo, while light on specifics, also appears to be ready to open source MOAP under the Symbian Foundation.
In short, Symbian and its major interfaces are well on their way to becoming a completely open source operating system and development platform. This spells potential trouble for Linux embedded systems. Google, faced with delays in its own Linux-based Android platform, made the best of things in its response to Nokia's news. A representative for Sean Carlson, Google's manager of global communications, said, "Openness fosters innovation, benefiting consumers. We're very pleased to see other major players in the mobile industry moving in this direction."
Geof Blaber, director of mobile device software research at CCS Insight, thinks Nokia wasn't so much attacking possible mobile phone competitors as it was making a defensive play, because even as Symbian had "grown into the dominant supplier of smartphone operating systems," it was "being challenged by a variety of new contenders."
Google, Blaber says, "challenged the commercial model, stating that its Android platform has reduced the cost of software to 'close to zero.'" Also, the LiMo Foundation, a consortium working on a Linux-based operating system for mobile devices, "has strong support from network operators, which have been attracted by its governance model. Operators believe they have more opportunity to influence the direction of this open source platform than with Symbian and its S60 and UIQ user interfaces." Other research houses, such as IDC, have also pointed out that the LiMo Foundation was making inroads with Linux into the mobile phone business..
And, of course, no one in the mobile phone business can ignore Apple and the iPhone. "Apple has raised the bar from a technical perspective, and Symbian licensees need to respond quickly to its touch-screen user interface, high performance, and easy-to-use development tools," Blaber says.
Rick Lehrbaum, embedded operating system expert and editor of DeviceGuru, says the mobile software player for whom this announcement is the most trouble is Microsoft. As Lehrbaum puts it, "It certainly makes Microsoft the odd man out."
Tristan Louis, editor of TNL.net, says in a blog posting that Nokia's plans serve Nokia in three ways: "I get to keep partners still involved but get them to agree to my taking charge. I get other people to improve my code and/or developing FOR it, thus allowing me to counter a potential Google threat if it ever materializes." And, I get to look more "open" than Apple and will use that in my messaging.
At the end of the day, though, Louis doesn't see a lot of change happening in the mobile space. He dismisses Sun and Palm, and as for Linux, it still "[has] teeth [but] will probably see its market share dwindle as its differentiator (more open than others) is gone." Short of acquiring BlackBerry powerhouse RIM, Louis doesn't see Microsoft rocking the mobile device market share boat. In a conversation about the impact of the Nokia deal, Louis said that he thinks Microsoft might go after RIM, or if that doesn't pan out, we could see "RIM/Google or RIM/Nokia."
For now, the experts agree on one thing. This move will either improve Nokia's position, or, at the least, solidify its hold on the mobile market despite anything that Google, LiMo, or Apple can do. That said, it wasn't so long ago that Apple had no mobile phone market share, and betting against Google or Linux has not been a winning proposition in any market lately.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was the operating system of choice for PCs and 2BSD Unix was what the cool kids used on their computers.