A single software platform spanning all smartphones would open the floodgates to a vast number of applications for business and consumers. If it integrated with the PC platform so much the better, allowing developers large and small to create software once for millions, eventually billions, of devices. The quest for the unified platform has dominated handset news for a couple of years, and now there are signs that the two more powerful candidates left standing - Symbian and Android - could come together.
Google aims to control a future unified mobile software architecture by harnessing the interest in Linux and open source, to create its as-yet uncommercialized Android system. It suffered a severe setback when Nokia took control of the Symbian operating system, the most widely installed on high end phones, and put it into an open source Foundation. With Apple and Microsoft largely confined to niches and the Linux-based LiMo Foundation in the shadows, these two giants were head-to-head. Now the two groups may be willing to work together in the interests of a genuinely universal platform that would bring developers flocking, and so boost consumer services and usage.
Symbian's CEO, Nigel Clifford, said this week that the group could extend its current collaborations with Google - mainly to run key apps such as Maps or search on Symbian OS - to the operating system level. 'If there is an opportunity, we will be happy to collaborate with them. And that could be on the application level or that could be on the more fundamental operating system level.'
Insiders added that this was meant as a clear signal that Google could be invited to put its work into the Symbian Foundation, which will use the Eclipse open source process, with a view to creating a unified system. This would effectively turn Linux into a specialist system, mainly used for lower end products and specific markets such as China, and make the new-look, open source Symbian king. It would incorporate several software frameworks, including Nokia's Series 60, UIQ from Sony Ericsson/Motorola, NTT DoCoMo's MOAP, key Java and Ajax technologies, and potentially elements of Android. In such a scenario, Nokia would have achieved its aim of holding the steering wheel for the next generation handset software, while Google would be able to bring many of its concepts - which support an open PC-style model - into the dominant platform, and achieve the widest possible installed base for its search, advertising and applications services. However, a veiled public invitation is just a small step - a lot of politics and technical work would be necessary to converge the efforts of these usually hostile forces.
All Symbian spokespeople would officially say was: "Symbian currently collaborates with Google as an ISV, as Google develops popular applications for Symbian OS, such as Google Maps, YouTube and Gmail."
Meanwhile, the Oscon open source conference takes place in Portland, Oregon this week, and it headlined by a program focused on mobile devices. Last year, more than 18% of mobile devices - especially low end handsets and other gadgets like e-book readers - ran Linux, and this is growing rapidly. By contrast, Linux commands only 1% of the PC market, whereas in terms of penetration of mobile units, it is about neck-and-neck with Windows, though the Microsoft OS remains stronger on high end products.
This year, Oscon is kicking off with a new one-day program called Open Mobile Exchange, with the focus on the commercial attractions of Linux for developers - notably the lower costs and the chance to brand, skin, and customize products in ways that major platform vendors like Microsoft and Apple would not permit. A host of phones and mobile internet devices will be on show, running Linux variants from Google Android, LiMo Foundation, Trolltech Qtopia, Ubuntu and others. But with the Symbian Foundation putting their smartphone OS into open source too, even here the Nokia-run body is likely to steal the limelight from Linux.
Caroline Gabriel is research director of Rethink Research Associates
Caroline Gabriel/Rethink Research