Nokia's Symbian Move Further Roils the Smartphone Landscape

Carl Weinschenk

As posted by IT Business Edge and at many places around the Net, Nokia made a major move this week when it agreed to pay $410 million to buy the 52 percent of the Symbian operating system that it doesn't already own.


It plans to make the smartphone operating system software open source and dump it into a new entity called the Symbian Foundation. Companies that pay a scant annual fee of $1,500 -- no doubt good enough to cover the foundation's rent and letterhead -- will get access to the source code.


Reporters and pundits love dramatic moves like this, and there was no shortage of instant analysis available. Since it joins Android and the LiMo Foundation as fairly similar consortia, it is fair to call the move a significant marker in the evolution of the mobile landscape.


Forbes suggested that the move might be a bit tardy. The Symbian platform won't be fully open sourced for a couple of years, the piece points out, while Google-led Android will have code in products later this year.


While the move was considered sensible in many quarters, at least one piece questioned its wisdom. The Register doesn't use the term, but it suggests that Nokia might be guilty of a bit of hubris in trying to leverage its already dominant standing. One of reasons Symbian was created in the first place, the writer says, was to preclude Microsoft from extending its domination from the desktop to the smartphone. It can be argued that the mobile industry has benefited financially and technically from Redmond's failure to do that, whatever the reasons.


However, the Symbian Foundation could be subject to significant push back if it is seen as the kind of move people were afraid Microsoft would make. Nokia, after all, has the largest share of the mobile OS pie. Extending its control over Symbian could reawaken the initial concerns people had -- only with Nokia as the putative monopolist.


Om Malik has an impressive amount of analysis, considering that the deal just happened. He describes a tough landscape in which vendors want to accelerate releases and include smartphone-like features on mid- or low-level phones. They also must be able to rebound quickly from a bad model. This all tends to de-emphasize proprietary, drawn-out design processes in favor of the more-quickly-put-together approach made possible by Android, LiMo and, now, the Symbian Foundation. He calls the iPhone, though without wide penetration, an agent of change.'s Tom Krazit also chimed in. No doubt the move, along with Android and LiMo, changes the ground rules in significant ways. Fault lines will be drawn in the next few years between consortia such as those that license the software for free against proprietary OSes from Microsoft, Research in Motion and others. Indeed, two levels of competition likely will emerge: One will pit open source approaches against each other and the other will see them compete against the proprietary model.

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