Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

Summary: After an expansion phase that saw the introduction of the iPhone, Android, LiMo, and JavaFX Mobile, the mobile phone platform landscape is shrinking again. Nokia today announced it plans to spend $410 million to acquire the pieces of Symbian Ltd.



After an expansion phase that saw the introduction of the iPhone, Android, LiMo, and JavaFX Mobile, the mobile phone platform landscape is shrinking again. Nokia today announced it plans to spend $410 million to acquire the pieces of Symbian Ltd. that it doesn't already own, and then give it away as open source under the Eclipse Public License. If that weren't enough, they got several of their competitors to chip in their own front-end assets and join a new Symbian Foundation that will provide overall governance to the combined project.

At first the Symbian Foundation will simply repackage the existing software and assets, allowing it to produce product right out of the gate next year. Everything won't be open source from day one. But eventually the differing interfaces will be unified, and within 2 years we should expect to see a single open-source platform supported by all the Foundation members. You can read the details on the Foundation's web site.

So who does this deal benefit or hurt the most? How will this affect the iPhone, Android, and other mobile platforms? Read on to find out...


Developers stand to benefit from this or any consolidation in the industry, because the fewer platforms they have to target the better.

Nokia gets a big PR boost, in addition to more leverage in setting the future direction for Symbian. Of course they were pretty much setting the direction anyway so that's not a big change for them. Nokia's biggest benefit may be in the protection of their Symbian investment in the face of recent competition (especially from Linux-based alternatives).

Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and NTT DoCoMo will save development resources by reusing what the Foundation provides, though they may lose some ability to differentiate between each other.

The Eclipse Foundation gets a gold star, since Nokia will be using the Eclipse Public License (EPL) for its software and will likely look to Eclipse's governance model when crafting their own.  EPL is similar to the Apache license used by Android, because both allow OEMs and carriers the freedom to make proprietary extensions (or not) if they so choose (as opposed to the GNU Public License which forces everything to remain open and modifiable).

Adobe, after being rebuffed by Apple and Google and RIM and ... gets a more solid partner and host platform for Flash in the Symbian Foundation. Piece of advice to Adobe: If you want to be ubiquitous on mobile like you are on the desktop, release your player as open source using an EPL/MPL/LGPL or Apache license. Get it bundled with WebKit builds if you can.

In theory, users of the phones may notice an improved user experience over time as applications become more consistent with each other and programmers concentrate on fewer platforms. But given there are still so many different platforms out there, and carriers will be customizing things, I'm not sure there will be that much effect.


Sun will find it even harder to push their JavaFX Mobile phone stack, although they'll claim that since Symbian runs Java ME applications it can run JavaFX Script applications. This is just lipstick on a pig, though, as the more innovative and interactive apps will always be created with either native interfaces or (increasingly) Web based interfaces.

Palm, and to a lesser extent RIM (Blackberry), will feel the pinch from the revitalized Symbian, the iPhone, and Android platforms. I wouldn't be surprised to see these two players jump on one of the other bandwagons at some point; perhaps Palm to LiMo and RIM to Android.

LiMo gets one more reason not to exist with this new Foundation. Although the idea of Linux on the phone is a fine one, the organization has thus far been unable to deliver a coherent strategy or appeal.

Google, Android, and the Open Handset Alliance would have been better off without this deal as they'll face a stronger competitor now. Without the Symbian Foundation, Symbian was running the risk of fading away in a few years as developers and manufacturers jumped ship to arguably better and more modern alternatives. Now, Symbian's lifetime is extended and its installed base will remain a mindshare draw for developers for that much longer. Additionally, the timing of the announcement, following on the heels of yesterday's Android "delay" couldn't have been worse.


Apple couldn't care less about the new partnership. They'll continue to do their own thing, as usual, and enjoy a loyal niche audience at the higher end of the market, thank you very much.

Microsoft will likewise be unaffected. Neither Apple or Microsoft will feel the need to partner with the others, instead seeing themselves as leaders of their own packs. Deep pockets will allow Microsoft to continue plugging away for as long as they want to, but as with the Zune and XBox it's unlikely they'll be able to establish anything approaching market dominance.

Topics: Nokia, Android, Google, Open Source, Software Development

Ed Burnette

About Ed Burnette

Ed Burnette is a software industry veteran with more than 25 years of experience as a programmer, author, and speaker. He has written numerous technical articles and books, most recently "Hello, Android: Introducing Google's Mobile Development Platform" from the Pragmatic Programmers.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Nokia Symbian - What's in a name?

    Heads up! It looks like Nokia's product naming consultants did not do their homework for similar names with other mental images and associations. Check out Or, how about the Symbionese Liberation Party that kidnapped Patty Hearst? I'm just sayin' ...
    • I'll tell you what's in that name...

      In perusing my email, "Symbian" leaped out at me. I thought that the name "Symbian" referred to a new virus/worm that was striking cellphones. This name is almost as bad as Ford's "Probe."
  • The key will be the governance...

    What with the cutthroat competition between the hand set makers sharing Symbian - it might be that some members are pulling in one direction and others in another.
    Roque Mocan
    • Are SE & Moto truly benefitting?

      I agree... the key will be governance. I'm not sure how SE & Moto will benefit or have their say in the decision making with Nokia completely owning the platform. If it's truly OHA, what is the need of one handset maker owning the whole company? Why can't it be like the SE & Moto 50-50 ownership of UIQ?

      If there are any glitches in the governance model, there could be discrepancies in the evolution of UIs, key features, applications and it could benefit one handset maker and while the others could be at a loss.

      ... And what does it mean for Samsung? Samsung is not a part of this alliance, does this mean that Samsung will move out of Symbian and concentrate majorly on LiMo?
      • Samsung is in it

        Samsung is a member too.
        From the press release: "Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and NTT DOCOMO ... together with AT&T, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone"

        The plan is that Nokia will not own the Symbian Foundation. The Foundation will be a non-profit organization like the Eclipse Foundation. Remember when IBM donated $50 million worth of software to kickstart the Eclipse Foundation? They have a seat on the board and pay dues but they don't own it any more than Oracle or any of the other foundation members own it. The way I read it, Nokia is doing the same thing.
        Ed Burnette
  • RE: Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

    After this news somebody was asking me if Symbian going open source means that Nokia will join Google.

    I don???t think Google will join Nokia anytime soon. They are competitor now. Nokia is entering the network service market, the same as Google. Open source doesn???t mean ???let???s make love all together???, it is just a way to license the software to avoid that ???bad guys??? can control other people life.

    Symbian is going to be open source in 2-3 years, not immediately and this will make it strong because of the huge market share it can reach. Sorry to say but Apple and Windows mobile will be confined to a small group of fans. They are closed and not that actractive as phone OS. Android have to prove itself. Symbian, thanks to Nokia power and determination to enter the network service market, looks as the winner at least for the next 5-6 years.

    This move will put Nokia as the leader of a mobile network platform that can be used to launch its new services. This platform is already the biggest and going open source will slow down Google Android even further. This will allow Nokia to be the biggest IP network service provider on phone after being the biggest phone manufacturer.
    • Friends don't let friends buy Nokia.

      Having owned two phones I am less than impressed. They
      looked cool and had lots of features like full QWERTY
      keyboards and such, but they were a pain to actually use.
      If you used it all the time, memory would let you navigate
      the confusion of Nokia design to efficient use. If you did
      not live by doing 20+ texts/day and 60 minutes of hours
      talk time a day, the interface was simply dreadful.

      Unfortunately, this mentality carries over to the
      programming interface to Symbian as well. It is a well
      designed OS with some truly unique abilities (efficient in
      both power and processor utilization) but is a PITFA to
      actually program. It is like most other embedded OSs out
      there and required you to think you are programming
      embedded to programming it. As a programmer, you have
      to deal with lots of low level stuff and, while fun and
      provides me good $$$$ doing this sort of thing in the
      embedded world, does not make for good business.

      That really is the dream of developing for the iPhone/iPod
      Touch platform. It is light-years ahead and that can not be
      discounted IMO on what platform will become the next
      major mobile platform i the market-space.
    • I would not bet on that...

      After a lot of Sharps Motorolas Sonys erricssons and SE I find myself sharing life between a NOKIA N95 and an Apple iphone.The no 3G no GPS no corporate not much IPHONE.

      After almost 8 months the iphone is my main phone and the N95 serves mostly as a GPS Device.

      So I would not bet on -"Sorry to say but Apple and Windows mobile will be confined to a small group of fans. They are closed and not that attractive as phone OS."-.

      It will take a while for Apple to catch up but it certainly will.

      Just think how many business men or women are traveling around with a mobile and an ipod.

      Now think iphone 2.0 or even better iphone 3.0.

      You might start to get the picture.

      On the developers side I have to tell you this, fooling around with the Apple SDK I felt like I could write my own APPS. And I am not a software engineer programmer coder or whatever. It seems that easy.

      Any way just follow my advice do not bet on your opinion yet.
  • RE: Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

    In 2-3 years, when the new Symbian is finally ready for mass
    market development, the iPhone OS and Android will be so
    advanced that nobody will remember this announcement.
    • Uh.. Symbian is already a product.

      It's already loaded on cell phones TODAY. The only change will be that the OS will be given over to a foundation that will make it Open Source.

      This isn't like the Android OS which was pretty much started from scratch.
  • RE: Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

    Nice wrap-up Ed. My only comment is that I don't see an incompatibility between LiMo and Android. Android is designed to run on Linux, and LiMo is supposed to provide an open mobile distro. If you take the Linux UI out of the picture for LiMo, you have something compatible.
    • LiMo vs. Android

      LiMo doesn't have much in common with Android except they're both targeted for mobile devices, and they both use the Linux kernel.

      Android has made some important improvements to the kernel and to the driver model that LiMo could theoretically use but as far as I know they don't plan to. For example sleep locks and a user-level hardware abstraction layer.

      90% of Android sits above Linux, though. All of it designed with low power and intuitive application life cycle on a small screen in mind. Plus, the Android programming model uses portable byte codes, so any program can run on Arm, Intel, PowerPC, or whatever the hardware guys come up with next, but LiMo uses unmanaged native code.
      Ed Burnette
      • LiMo vs the world?

        As far as I know LiMo hasn't attempted to merge much of anything back into the main Linux kernel. I could be wrong but I haven't heard much.

        Android, on the other hand, as submitted virtually all it's kernel improvement code back to the mainline. So it's theoretically possible to build a full blown mobile system on it with the Linux kernel linking everything together. Byte code programming isn't exactly unheard of in the Linux world, you know. :-)


  • RE: Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

    Symbian on a Nokia is the only solution I've found which can support a Text-To-Speech and/or a screen magnification application for people with disabilities.
    It also can support BB Connect which fulfills corporate responsibilities to federal employees with disabilities.
    Looking forward to see what will come out of the new "openness" when it happens.
  • RE: Nokia Symbian deal winners and losers

    Is a dead issue? Was under the impression would be optimized for the mobile phone user. Anyone have an opinion on the future of
  • One more question....

    You seem to have addressed the users of these phones, Nokia, Samsung, LG, etc. But what about the users who prefer RIM or Palm Treos? How will this effect those platforms and therefor, what impact will it have on those users? I'm a Palm Treo user myself but I like the idea of switching to this platform because it will more than likely have a very large development community. Which will mean more choice in third-party applications and larger support community to boot.
    Steve Goldman
    • Technology moves ahead

      The writing has been on the wall for Palm for some time. Unless they switch to one of the newer, sexier platforms, or dig in and make their own platform compete, then their users will have to deal with end-of-life of the products.

      I own a Treo, Blackberry, and iPhone. The Treo has been sitting in a drawer for 2 years. Despite being an early innovator it has no future at this point. The Blackberry is well worn and clipped to my belt, but the iPhone has started following me around a bit thanks to some podcasts I've started listening to.

      If only we could combine the best features of every platform... Of course by then something new and useful will come along that it won't have.

      BTW as a Palm/Treo fan I think you'll like the way Android and iPhone do application life cycle. There's no 'closing' or 'hiding' or 'killing' or 'stopping' of apps for the user to worry about like many of the others (Windows Mobile was esp. bad for that last time I used it).
      Ed Burnette
  • TrollTech

    As said earlier, Nokia already controlled Symbian in more than one way.
    The real news is that Nokia also acquired TrollTech.
    The QT interface is becoming more predominant, and for years it's been the foundation for Linux's 'Other' DesKtop.
    Now, if the QT libraries became true open source, that is a game changing proposition, where developers can build native C++ applications on any relevant platform, desktop or mobile; and yes, it does already embed WebKit.
    • I've already got a Trolltech QT core phone..

      And they're gonna have to pry it from my cold dead fingers...

      It's actually a pretty sharp little phone made, oddly enough, by Motorola - the A1200.

      I do fear that Nokia owning the company will effectively kill the QT OS or bastardize it into Symbian to the point where it won't be recognizable.
    • QT isn't an OS

      QT is a collection of libraries that are used to, among other things, build KDE on Linux and any other *Nix that wants to use it.

      The library used by KDE and the vast majority of others is already open sourced with a mix of LGPL and GPL licenses.

      Nokia has already said they'll maintain the expand the status quo of Trolltech licenses andd products though, on occasion, they seem to have a problem understanding just was FLOSS means.

      The Trolltech phone, incidentally, ran on LiMo. Ed's already said why that came to an end when he mentioned confusion on the part ot the LiMo people about what it was all supposed to do.

      So Noika as Symbian and QT. Android can use QT as well. So can Microsoft it they so desire. (Not at all likely, I'd guess.)