Nokia buys Symbian and looks to open mobile future

Foundation squares up to Android and LiMo…

Foundation squares up to Android and LiMo…

Google's Android may not have launched yet but it's already causing major changes in the mobile operating system world.

OS maker Symbian has today announced it is to transform into a not-for-profit foundation - The Symbian Foundation - uniting the Symbian OS, S60, UIQ and MOAP(S) OSes and creating one open mobile software platform aimed at driving innovation in application development.

To facilitate the creation of the Foundation, Nokia said it intends to buy the remaining Symbian shares - for £209m - which it does not already own so it can acquire Symbian Ltd.

As with the LiMo open mobile software alliance, The Symbian Foundation has enlisted a raft of members - a launch line up that includes Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, AT&T, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone - with membership intended to be open to all comers for a small yearly fee.

Once it owns Symbian Ltd, Nokia will contribute the Symbian and S60 software to the Foundation, while Sony Ericsson and Motorola said they intend to contribute technology from UIQ, and DoCoMo will contribute its MOAP(S) assets. Using these contributions, the Symbian Foundation will build a unified platform with a common user interface framework to which Foundation members will gain access via a royalty-free licence.

Members will contribute to the ongoing development of the Symbian open platform - which Symbian said will be made available over the next two years under the Eclipse Public License (EPL) 1.0.

Nigel Clifford, CEO of Symbian, said in a statement: "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. Today's announcement is a bold new step to achieve that vision by embracing a complete and proven platform, offered in an open way, designed to stimulate innovation which is at the heart of everything we do."

Nokia's CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, added in a statement: "Establishing the Foundation is one of the biggest contributions to an open community ever made. Nokia is a strong supporter of open platforms and technologies as they give the freedom to build, maintain and evolve applications and services across device segments and offer by far the largest ecosystem, enabling rapid innovation. Today's announcement is a major milestone in our devices software strategy."

Speaking to the industry back in February, the outgoing CEO of Vodafone, Arun Sarin, warned the industry about the threat posed by new entrants to the market, such as Apple and Google, called for fewer mobile operating systems to make life easier for developers who have to struggle with the "30 or 40 currently in play".

And analysts certainly see the move to consolidate Symbian's OSes into one fully open platform as a response to the threats identified by Sarin.

Adam Leach, principle analyst at Ovum, told "Symbian was at a plateau of its volumes in terms of its success. It was always set up as a company to try and promote a standard platform and to be adopted by the industry as a stand platform for mobile but despite its early promises it didn't quite deliver that.

"In the wider market we see things like Android's Open Handset Alliance being formed and the LiMo Foundation… [LiMo] was achieving traction and it was achieving traction a lot quicker than Nokia did, than Symbian had, so I think they basically looked at what LiMo had achieved and how they achieved that and they've gone to replicate that model."

Carolina Milanesi, research director, mobile devices at Gartner, added: "This is a market change. Obviously they [Symbian, Nokia] didn't want to admit that it's because of Google but I can see the point where Google started something and [they realised they] need to respond to that - and this is where the market is going."

Gavin Byrne, research analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, described the move as "a land grab for the application developers' mindshare" - pointing to Android's developer-friendly credentials and Apple releasing the iPhone SDK. "Both sides [are] also offering funding to incentivise application development," he added.

The shift to a free open source platform also removes barriers to greater adoption of the Symbian OS, according to Ian Fogg, research director at JupiterResearch - which could bring the company nearer its original stated goal of becoming a universal mobile platform.

Fogg said: "It's a recognition that something needs to be done to cause a step change in the number of handsets shipped with Symbian. And by saying we're offering the system for free that removes one of the barriers to shipping a phone with Symbian."

So what impact is the arrival of another high profile open OS likely to have on the mobile market at large?

Giving the OS away for free should drive Symbian adoption - and that could put pressure on Microsoft which charges a royalty fee for its OS, according to Milanesi.

It is also likely to increase penetration of open mobile devices in the market - which will shift the focus onto user interfaces and mobile services as differentiating factors between handsets as open platform devices proliferate.

She said: "If you look back a couple of years ago, proprietary platforms were the majority and in the mid-tier continue to be, whereas now you see more and more a shift towards open platforms… If you look forwards, in 2015 or 2017 that's going to be pretty much the whole market."

It may also mean cheaper hardware in the long run.

Byrne added: "If they're all using the same hardware and software platform that will mean hardware costs can decrease and the OS and the UI will become more standardised - although there will be a degree of modularity.

"Differentiation will be carried out at a higher level. It'll allow the device vendors to focus on adding improved functionality to, for instance, media players or software that is more visible to the end user and allow perhaps a more stable base beneath that. But it will allow those device vendors to innovate perhaps more strongly to ensure their brands are protected in that area."

And what about Google's Android? Is the Symbian Foundation an Android killer?

Not necessarily, according to Milanesi, because - if the Foundation makes developers wait until 2010 to use its open platform it may have already missed the boat. "There's a window of opportunity here they need to grab as far as how they're going to time it," she said, adding: "Two years is a long time in this industry."

However, the Symbian Foundation may well have the edge over the upstart as Ovum's Leach points out. "[Google has] bitten off quite a lot with Android," he said. "And I think that the LiMo Foundation and the Symbian Foundation are better set up to be successful. I think Android's a more of a wild card to be honest.

"It's taken Symbian 10 years to get to where they are now - Google are being very optimistic about what they can achieve with Android."