OpenSymbian: Surviving in a Changing Market

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Nokia's purchase Tuesday of the 52 percent of Symbian it didn't already own allows Nokia to release the entire Symbian platform under an open source license -- specifically the Eclipse license -- and to set up what it's calling the Symbian Foundation.


Obviously, the move signals the beginning of an effort to compete more directly with the Linux Mobile (LiMo) Foundation and Google's Android platform. Android's slower start has already given LiMo room to garner more credibility by bringing big guns like Mozilla and Verizon on board, not to mention getting its devices to market first. So it makes sense that Nokia wants in on the game. (What company wouldn't want to get one up on a giant like Google?) And it will certainly change the landscape of the mobile OS market, as IT Business Edge's Carl Weinschenk points out.


But the move also raises questions. First, if recent surveys are accurate, Symbian holds the majority of the mobile operating system market now, as a proprietary OS. Why go open source? Is it just a matter of keeping up with the competition, much like Microsoft is having to do with its software offerings?


Second, regardless of the rationale, is Nokia making this move too late? As we've seen with Sun Microsystems' work to open source Solaris and Java, it doesn't happen overnight. Will developers be able to make up the time they've already lost in order to get working devices out there, or will the other groups be too far ahead?


I think the latter is likely the case, but I won't go as far as TechCrunch's John Biggs. In a piece published in The Washington Post, he says it's not likely that Symbian will even survive the transition to open source:

The OS is old and crotchety, unable to handle data-intensive applications with the same aplomb RIM or even the iPhone OS have. Once the platform is open, Nokia will most likely put it out to pasture...

Maybe that's why Nokia is opening the platform in the first place -- because it recognizes Symbian will need some help to stay relevant. I don't think it will disappear completely. Symbian is too popular for that. But the OS may be playing catch up for quite a while.