Nokia and friends take Symbian open-source

Staff Writer
18 Jul 2008

Symbian has come full circle plus.

Nokia last month fully acquired the handset platform company, then announced it would hand its IPR assets over to the new Symbian Foundation. Sony Ericsson, Motorola and NTT DoCoMo will do the same with their Symbian-based OS.

This has some echoes of the early days of the handset OS firm. Originally it was owned by Nokia, Sony, Ericsson, Motorola and others as their defense against the anticipated Microsoft challenge.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how wrong that was. After seven years, Microsoft today has little more than 10% of the smartphone market and will struggle to gain more.

It is that other computer OS, Linux, that is making Nokia jump.

But where Symbian 1.0 went wrong was its dominance by Nokia. One by one other members bailed out of the alliance, not wanting to tie their fortunes to a platform controlled by the market leader.

Now Nokia and foundation partners are turning Symbian into an open-source platform, with each contributing their assets to the IPR pool. From 2010 they expect to be able to offer the first public license, to be called Eclipse.

Symbian's critics say it's never been a success as an industry - as against Nokia - platform. That it doesn't have the developer base of LiMo and the iPhone, while the foundation members don't seem particularly committed; Motorola, Samsung, DoCoMo, TI and Vodafone are also members of the LiMo Foundation.

For their part, Symbian supporters can point to the 200 million devices shipped and the 'tens of thousands' of third-party apps. They regard this latest move as an effective end-run around Apple and Microsoft, which will continue to seek licensing fees for their OS software.

Lower-cost platform

By going open-source Symbian becomes price-competitive against Linux. At the same time it has the chance to leverage Nokia's market scale to build the industry's biggest developer base.

Nokia paid E264 million to buy the 52% of Symbian it didn't own - about the equivalent of two years' licensing fees payable. As well as saving the same licensing costs, Nokia has the chance to cut the cost of mobile phone development and enable what OS builders have always promised, though never delivered: an accessible, low-cost platform that will spark innovation and give flexibility to mobile phone owners.

What it really does is put pressure on Google's Android. Announced in a flurry of publicity last November, the Open Handset Alliance has yet to sign up a major operator or handset partner.

It's been seriously over-shadowed by the LiMo Foundation, the Linux group founded in early 2007 by Motorola, NEC, DoCoMo, Panasonic and Samsung. Now that Nokia et al have gone open-source, it's hard to see how - or why - Android will survive.

LiMo released its first handsets at Barcelona in February this year. Android, which was supposed to put a spark under the sluggish Linux sector, hasn't released a thing apart from its developer kit.

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