Thoughts on the Symbian Foundation

June 27, 2008

You may have seen the news that Nokia is buying the parts of Symbian that it did not own, to create a non-for-profit foundation that will offer the OS royalty-free and will open-source it later, unifying the multiple UIs that exist today. I read the announcement and some of the analysis online, which led me to a few observations:

          I find it very respectable that Nokia recognized the fragmentation in the Symbian ecosystem and took bold steps to unify the platform. Obviously, the fragmentation across UIQ, Series 60, Series 80 and MOAP(S). Still, I am not sure there is a smooth transition plan, especially for the Japanese market, to go to S60.


          It is very interesting that all current shareholders are committed to making the sale except for Samsung. According to the press release “Nokia also expects Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. to accept the offer “.  Did they not have time to talk to Samsung about this, or was Samsung not very happy about it and they are being forced to sell?


          UIQ will disappear: the foundation promises backward compatibility to Series 60 only, which means developers should stop any UIQ development and start porting their stuff to S60. UIQ just announced they are laying-off half of the staff. This is sad because UIQ was probably the best UI for Symbian.  I am sure Sony Ericsson and Motorola are not very happy to see the multi-million dollar investment they have made over the years in UIQ technology evaporating into thin air. People who invested in UIQ 3 must be frustrated it may never see the light of day.


          As a consequence, Nokia is forcing Nokia and Sony Ericsson to make a decision about their 24-month Symbian roadmap. Their options are:

a)      Launch phones with end-of-life technology (UIQ), or

b)      Wait until the foundation produces the first release, which could be 2-3 years or more (until a phone is in market), or

c)       Switch to another mobile platform. Not really a switch because both already have Windows Mobile and Motorola has significant experience with Linux


          I understand the move to consolidate. But why make Symbian royalty free and why make it open source?  I believe many software companies donate their technologies to Open Source as an exit strategy whey they don’t see a profitable business opportunity in them. I made a controversial post on my old blog about this not too long ago.Nokia may be doing it to demonstrate openness for a technology they own but which they want partners and competitors to adopt.


          The new foundation will have a board of directors and a number of councils to drive architectural, UI and platform decisions. How this works in practice will be critical for the success of the platform. Nokia could (or could be perceived to) have too much control over the platform which will obviously not be taken well by competing device manufacturers. The alternative could be worse: technologies driven by a committee usually go nowhere. The best example is J2ME. The Java Community process has been incredibly ineffective. To illustrate: back in 2001 I was very close to the launch of MIDP 2.0. Fast forward to 2008, the latest version of the MIDP specification is still 2.0.  I was very close to the Java Community Process and I saw major vendors trying to push their agendas in most JSRs. As a consequence, the committee had to compromise, approving specs based on lowest-common denominators. Getting any JSR approved took years in some cases, even for simple things like the vibration API for games.


          Another key question will be the business model behind Symbian. On one side, the business model behind Linux is clear: there is none, most contributions are voluntary, companies usually make money on services (i.e. support). On the other side, commercial operating systems like Windows Mobile have a clear business model as well: there is a license per phone sold. The Symbian Foundation will have a hybrid model where there is no license revenue but Symbian will be the sole provider of funding for engineering, support, marketing, etc.  How much will Nokia continue investing over time?


          Royalty Free does not equal cost-free. I expect some pressure for Windows Mobile, but the cost of the OS license is not as significant as people believe. The engineering cost to create a device is in the millions and millions of dollars. Android device manufacturers are experiencing this first-hand.  In this hyper-competitive market OEMs will question why they would continue investing in a technology owned by their biggest competitor.


          While the move by Nokia consolidates the Symbian operating system, it further fragments the royalty-free and open-source mobile OS industry. Now you will have Symbian, LiMo, Open Moko, Android,and other more obscure Linux-based Operating Systems. I don’t think there is room for so many. Is this UNIX all over again?


          For developers, open-sourcing will be attractive, mostly from a perception perspective as most won’t have the skills or the time to analyze and understand a subset of the 7 million lines of code that Nokia will open-source. While SDK will be free, the tools might not: the Carbide C++ Professional Edition development tools are being sold for 1299 Euros.


          One possibility could be the move represents Nokia bailing out the other major Symbian partners that jumped into the business with them through this $400 million buyout.  Iam sure there were interesting executive conversations in Espoo about spending $400 million to buy a technology that will be free and which will require continued investment. The $400 million investment should be roughly the equivalent of two years of license payments at the current rate Nokia was paying Symbian. Still, Nokia still must invest significant resources to the foundation ad-infinitum. Foundation membership is only $1,500.

A couple lst thoughts notes:

Symbian is a very mature and powerful operating system. I remember when we launched CodeWarrior for Symbian (before it was sold to Nokia and renamed carbide) in early 2002 and later helped Sony Ericsson build a developer community around the P800. It is a good OS. Architecturally, it is very solid – years ahead of the Blackberry OS 4.5 and other new operating systems. From a technology perspective, it is a very viable OS today.

Don’t be misled by the numbers touted by Nokia: surely millions and millions of phones ship with Symbian. But are these really smart phones? They are from a capabilities perspective. In my experience, a very large percentage of Symbian-based phone owners are not aware that their phone is “smart”, do not know it runs Symbian and/or do not use it as a smart phone. It’s like Sun claiming victory with over a billion J2ME phones: most of the users will never be aware and will never use a J2ME app. In other words, the fact these phones have J2ME is irrelevant. The same can be said for most Linux phones, which are not smart phones – Linux is merely replacing an RTOS.

Conclusion: This is a very interesting move from Nokia that will have significant implications in the market overall. The key questions are Nokia’s ongoing investment in the foundation without a solid business model behind Symbian and the balance Nokia will have to find between having too much control over Symbian versus a committee-driven process that inhibits innovation.

Fun times. I love this industry.


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