Nokia and the battle for open source's soul

The formation of the Symbian Foundation is good news for the mobile industry but the open-source community could see some ethical compromises
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Tuesday's big announcement, that several major mobile platforms — Symbian, UIQ, Series 60 and MOAP — are to be pooled into one open-sourced über-platform, came out of the blue.

The establishment of the Symbian Foundation (SF) may be unexpected, but that does not make it surprising. It has become increasingly clear over the last year or two that the future of the mobile industry lies in open source. As handsets become more commoditised, and as the industry faces up to the likelihood of consolidation, the main differentiating factor is going to be on the application side. That's an arena where the open-source community comes in handy, especially in a world where time-to-market is crucial.

Nokia, which, despite its protestations to the contrary, is effectively seizing the initial stewardship of the SF, understands this better than most companies. Its purchase of Trolltech was specifically geared towards giving it a strong foothold in the application space — both on the desktop and in mobile — and it had already been playing with open source before making that deal.

The Finnish giant had, until now, kept out of the major alliances being formed in the mobile Linux space — the LiMo Foundation and the Google-led Open Handset Alliance (OHA) — because it could afford to. Enjoying 40 percent of the global handset market, and holding the largest stake in the market-leading Symbian platform, Nokia did not have to be quite as reactive as other manufacturers when it came to the open-source revolution. It was, however, inevitable that it would join the revolution and, after a suitable period of observer status, it chose the right time to do so.

The most serious rival to the SF is the OHA's Android, which theoretically has a significant lead in the race for mobile open source — its first handsets are due at the end of this year or the start of 2009, and the SF will only deliver in 2010. However, many operators will be wary of Google's explicit dominance of Android, as Google has its own business models and its own agenda. Symbian itself was created by and for the industry, and the SF promises the same levels of industrial collaboration and control.

The SF also automatically gains tens of thousands of developers, who have until now been working on Symbian, Series 60, UIQ and MOAP. Those developers are being assured that their work on the current iterations of those platforms will be forwards-compatible with the SF's platform, so it is not as if they are now faced with a serious conundrum as to which platform they should primarily address.

Retaining those developers in an open-source world, and attracting more open-source developers, will now be the SF's challenge. Nokia's attitude towards the open-source ethos is still unclear — recent comments by its software chief have unsettled many in that community, who fear that Nokia, and now the SF, might want to enjoy the benefits of a collaborative, contributing community while retaining industry elements that are anathema to that community: DRM and SIM locks to name but two. Making what Symbian claims is the largest-ever contribution of code to the open-source community is a praiseworthy start but what comes afterwards will prove the SF's true intentions.

For the industry, the creation of the SF is nothing but good news. By unifying several existing platforms, it serves to reverse the potential fragmentation that causes so many developers and operators to fear open source. It also promises an explosion in the application market. However, it may also be that the mobile open-source industry ends up more ethically compromised than its desktop equivalent. This is a battle that is only just beginning.

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