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

... of Symbian. It's always possible that someone else will come along and do comparable software and make that available. There should be plenty of ways for companies [whose code is currently within Symbian's code] to recoup their investment, either by selling the software [to Symbian], or by developing a better version and making that available for an additional fee.

Can you give any indication of how many third-party players there are whose code is currently within Symbian's?
There are scores. We have numbers, but it's not clear how many of them are serious cases. In some cases they can be dealt with probably straight away, but scores could take some serious thought. Whether that's nearer 20 or 100, we need to investigate. There's something like 100 cases that we're looking at. In many cases, it looks like it's a trivial solution. In other cases, the software is in a class of its own.

What do you count as 'trivial'? Something that can be easily replicated?
Either where it's easily replicable, or where we are confident that we can change the licensing terms. It might be code that's currently under the GPL, so we might pass that through. In reality people will make a phone by taking this and adding in other things that are easily available. So there will be other stuff, GPL, floating around in the broader community. So we will say to people: "Right, you build a phone by taking this Symbian offering and adding in these additional components." Webkit, for example — that's currently under a GPL licence.

There are things we might look at and say: "Well, this is easy to solve. It's not an integral part of the system. It will be available as part of what we call a distro." So people will combine what they get from Symbian with other things that are designed to slot in.

So we will see distributions of the Symbian core and some free plug-ins?
Yes, and other plug-ins that people might even pay money for. The point is, there are many business models that are possible. Just as Linux has given rise to many companies that do their labours with Linux, there will be many companies that do things on top of Symbian. We're not looking for different flavours of Symbian in the sense of changing the core, but there will be people who are, for example, specialists in software for navigation devices.

Of course, many of the smartphones are actually navigation devices in their own right, but you can imagine some people might make a navigation device which happens to be a smartphone, as opposed to a smartphone that happens to be a navigation device. There might be people who specialise in that kind of thing and say: "Here's Symbian's offering and we've got some extra navigation stuff that we add in to make us the right starting point."

A lot of manufacturers are likely to bring out Android handsets…
Lots of people will look at bringing out an Android handset. Let's wait and see what actually happens.

Symbian has scale and popularity but Android is starting from zero. It doesn't have to strip out code. For a developer, is there not a period of uncertainty at the moment, because they're not sure of what they're addressing? The message in the keynotes was that addressing Series 60 means addressing the next version of Symbian, but is that actually the case? Some bits may have to be stripped out…
I think that the proportion that might end up being changed in that way is very small. The vast majority of software that's written can be preserved.

For our developer readers, when is that moment of uncertainty going to pass?
It's going to be stage-by-stage. We have a roadmap. We will be sharing more information sometime around the middle of H1 2009. There will be a whole lot more information shared.

What innovations can we expect from Symbian between now and the next Smartphone Show, and how much will the open-sourcing process affect that innovation?
The first phone with Symbian OS 9.4 has been shown, which is the Nokia [5800] Tube device. That runs S60 5th edition. We have already released...

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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