Symbian's research chief on going open source

Summary:How do you open up a closed codebase? Symbian research chief David Wood tells ZDNet.co.uk about potential and practicality, and the promise of multicore phones

Symbian, the UK-based maker of the world's most popular smartphone operating system, is going through big changes.

As well as being taken over by Nokia, the company is preparing to convert its closed code into open source.

ZDNet.co.uk caught up with Symbian's research chief, David Wood, at this week's Symbian Smartphone Show at Earls Court in London, to discuss the complications of such a process, as well as what the next few years holds for smartphone technology.

Q: It seems as though everyone is waiting for the Nokia takeover to happen before the code starts getting stripped. When is the acquisition likely to be completed?
A: We expect the approval for the deal sometime in Q4 this year. It's not an exact science. It's been approved in most parts of the world that need to approve it but there's a small number left. That will happen almost certainly this year, and that will then allow us to do some of the integration. We can't do any integration at all now — it's illegal. What we're doing now is a lot of planning, but no actual change in what we're doing.

In the first half of next year, the Symbian Foundation will be established. On day one, sometime in March or April, the first version of the Foundation software will become available.

What can we expect from that version? It won't be stripped of third-party code yet, will it?
Correct. That will be available only to people who join the Foundation and who sign up to the Foundation licence. There will be some parts that are open source.

So the Foundation licence is not the open-source licence…
The Foundation licence is very similar to the open-source licence, but it allows the companies to share the code only within the Foundation. It's a community source licence, with as much as possible in common with the eventual [open source] licence that will take over.

There is some code available as open source from day one, but completion [of the open sourcing] will be some time in 2010. It's a sensible engineering approach — a stage-by-stage release of the code.

I was speaking earlier to the chief executive of a software firm whose code is currently in Symbian. He said there was no problem in having some proprietary elements within open-sourced code, and that this was acceptable under the GNU General Public Licence (GPL). That doesn't sound right…
We're not using the GPL — it's the EPL [Eclipse Public Licence]. The EPL is indeed able to link to proprietary software. The GPL is less clear. In fact, a straight reading of the GPL says if you link to other software then that other software falls under the same licence. Under the EPL, if you link to other software then there's no obligation on that other software to take the same licence. EPL is weak copyleft, whereas GPL is the most famous example of strong copyleft. So I agree with that part, that there could be code that's linked to. This is to encourage innovation.

We're not saying all software should be free of charge. We do realise that there will always be new, interesting software that people will want to monetise by selling for a licence. If you change the Symbian code, that has to be given back — you can't hang onto that, so that's the copyleft part of this message.

But there is code from this company within Symbian's code… won't that have to be scraped out?
Something has to be done, and I don't really want to talk about an individual case, but in principle several things could happen. We could throw money at a supplier, and we could say to them: "We will buy this off you in perpetuity and we will make it available." Or we could say we'll leave this outside the platform and we can put something else in instead. It won't be quite the same, and we might go back to the kind of offering that we had in previous versions...

Topics: Networking

About

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't be paying many bills. His early journalistic career was spent in general news, working behind the scenes for BBC radio and on-air as a newsreader for independent stations. David's main focus is on communications, of both... Full Bio

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