Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Winds of change: The effect of BB, Android and iPhone on Symbian’s approach

On June 5th, 2008 Nokia, the world's biggest maker of mobile phones, announced the acquisition of Trolltech, a recognized software provider with world-class software development platforms and frameworks.

The story however was incomplete without Nokia having a controlling stake in one of the key platforms it uses on most of it's advanced devices.

On June 24th, 2008 Nokia, offered to buy the 52 percent of Symbian Ltd. that it doesn't own for about 264 million euros ($410 million) to gain control in the maker of operating systems for handsets. Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications, the mobile-phone joint venture of Ericsson AB and Sony Corp., has 13.1 percent of Symbian, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.'s Panasonic holds 10.5 percent, Siemens AG 8.4 percent and Samsung Electronics Co. has 4.5 percent.

Symbian faces competition from Microsoft Corp., Research In Motion Ltd. and Apple Inc. in sales of operating systems for advanced wireless devices such as handheld computers and so- called smartphones, which allow users to access wireless Internet, check e-mail, play music and transmit video clips. Symbian's system was installed on about 7 percent of all mobile phones sold at the end of last year.

"Ten years ago, Symbian was established by far-sighted players to offer an advanced, open operating system and software skills to the whole mobile industry", said Symbian chief executive Nigel Clifford on Tuesday. "Our vision is to become the most widely used software platform on the planet, and indeed, today, Symbian OS leads its market by any measure."

With this acqusition Nokia also announced to use this platform to form open-source Android killer.

Companies including Nokia, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, AT&T, Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Vodafone announced that they will work together to make the Symbian OS open source. They will offer it under a royalty-free license to members of a new nonprofit group called the Symbian Foundation.

Symbian's decision to make its source code freely available tips the scales in favor of open-source software in smartphones and could make it harder for Microsoft, and even other open-source platforms like Google's Android and Linux, to compete.

“The platform will be free and open to develop on from the start whether you are enthusiast, web designer, professional developer or service provider. To develop on the platform you will not need to be a member of the foundation. The Symbian Foundation’s developer program will provide a single point of access for developer support; providing a wide offering of tools and resources.”

What will this all lead to??
--Symbian OS will become free. Nokia's Symbian-related assets, including both Symbian OS and the S60 interface, will be contributed to the new Symbian Foundation, a nonprofit that will control the Symbian platform. So Nokia writes the code and then gives it to the foundation for free.

The foundation will open source the new Symbian platform over a two year period. So eventually Symbian will be available for free.

The new Symbian Platform will have a broader scope than the current Symbian OS which would include:

-An application suite (previously controlled by licensees)
-Runtimes (including Webkit, Flash, Silverlight, and Java; previously licensee-controlled)
-UI framework (formerly controlled by licensees)
-Tools, SDK, and application signing (previously shared between Symbian and licensees)

--UIQ will be dead. SonyEricsson's UIQ technology, and NTT DoCoMo's MOAP, both of which are user interface layers written on top of Symbian, will also be contributed to the foundation, which will incorporate pieces of them into S60. The new Symbian foundation partners said at the press conference, "We will reposition UIQ in the new ecosystem." That's seems to be a face-saving way of saying, "UIQ is dead." Confirming that, UIQ announced immediate plans to lay off more than half its employees.

These are huge changes, even though they'll take a couple of years to implement. We won't get the first release of the new merged platform until 2010, although the partners say S60 and native Symbian apps will continue to run in the future, so they hope many more developers will create Symbian apps today in anticipation of future growth.

--Nokia will continue to control Symbian development. This is my interpretation, not something they announced. Technically, control over Symbian and S60 passes to the new Symbian Foundation, with product plans controlled by a managing board and councils made up of foundation members. This makes Symbian sound independent.

--It would help Apple? I think it's probably good news. Although the Symbian partners could theoretically bleed Apple by sharing investments that Apple has to fund for itself, Apple competes on speed and elegance, not cost control. Nokia and Symbian will now spend the next six months sorting out how they'll integrate and rationalize their organizations. No matter how much they try to avoid it, this will slip schedules and force people to revisit plans. And the other Symbian licensees have to wait two years for the new OS. That gives Apple a long, long time to build up its iPhone business.

--Google should be happy and worried? My first reaction is to say that Google should be worried because there's now another very credible operating system being given away for free in competition with Android (or there will be in two years). What's more, the leading mobile handset companies all participated in the Symbian Foundation announcement. That makes it harder for Android to get licensees. But the new open Symbian OS is two years away from shipment, giving Google lots of runway to get established (that's what I meant about execution determining the real impact of the announcement). Also, the governance system for Android is a lot simpler than Symbian's. While the Symbian committees must debate and agree on product plans, Google can just decide whatever features it wants to add, and toss them out there. In theory, Google should be able to move much faster, though they seem to be doing that at the moment.

Besides, there is the question of why Google really created Android. One school of thought says that Android was just a tool to bleed Microsoft and force openness in the mobile ecosystem. If that's the goal, then the opening up of Symbian is a kind of a triumph for Google. Nokia is, in many ways, doing Google's work for it. Which brings us to...

--What happens to Microsoft? Here's the weird thought for the day: Microsoft is the last major company charging money for a mobile operating system. How many companies are going to want to pay for Windows Mobile when they can get Linux, Android, or Symbian for free? This is Microsoft's ultimate open source nightmare, becoming real.


Rahul Aggarwal said...

If you want to hear more about what Symbian is morphing into, two of its executives have just started personal weblogs in which they are commenting on the migration to Symbian Foundation (among other things). It's an interesting move, and it seems symbolic of the transition they're trying to make into the open source world. Previously Symbian had a company blog that several execs contributed to; now the execs have personal blogs where they talk directly to the industry.

David Wood (Symbian's EVP of Research) Visit:

John Forsyth (Symbian's Strategy VP) Visit:

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