Analysis: Symbian shifts mobile world to open source

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Symbian’s decision to make its source code freely available tips the scales in favor of open-source software in smartphones and could make it harder for Microsoft, and even other open-source platforms like Google’s Android and Linux, to compete.

On Tuesday, companies including Nokia, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, LG Electronics, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, AT&T, Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics and Vodafone announced that they will work together to make the Symbian OS open source. They will offer it under a royalty-free license to members of a new nonprofit group called the Symbian Foundation.

Symbian is used in about 60 percent of the world’s smartphones, which means that open-source software will soon drive the majority of those devices. The proprietary model behind mobile operating systems from Microsoft, Research In Motion and Apple, then, will for the first time be in the minority.

Symbian will become the biggest, but not the only, open-source game in town. Others include the LiMo Foundation, which is working on a mobile Linux-based operating system, and Google’s Android, also an open Linux-based OS.

While those projects have been in the works for some time, the Symbian effort could have an advantage because of the decade of growth and development behind it. “It is nearly always easier to start from something you know and change it (Symbian), then to start from scratch (Android),” wrote Jack Gold, analyst with J. Gold Associates, in a commentary about the announcement.

Mary McDowell, Nokia’s chief development officer, agreed. “If you look at the assets being contributed to the [Symbian] Foundation, we’re talking about a platform with 200 million users, 10 years of development, support from multiple shipping vendors and operators ready today,” she said. “As you’ve seen with some of the new entrants, that’s sometimes a hard thing.”

She may have been referring to a report on Tuesday that Google’s Android project is progressing more slowly than expected, due in part to challenges involved with working with mobile operators. Google is running up against the same difficulties that any new entrant would in developing a new mobile operating system.

In addition, Google faces one of the same challenges that many say has held back Symbian. Even though Symbian powers the bulk of smartphones around the world, it has failed to become an industry standard due in large part to Nokia’s perceived control of the software. The vast majority of phones running Symbian come from Nokia, which has made some other handset makers reluctant to license the software because they feel like they would be licensing it from their biggest competitor. Google faces a similar problem in that it’s perceived to be driving the development of Android, rather then taking a more community approach.

However, Symbian competitors say it remains to be seen whether the open-source effort will be less controlled by Nokia. “One of the challenges for Symbian will be to transform what’s been a for-profit, vendor-driven organization into something that produces a handset OS that truly does reflect the requirements and market demands of the entire mobile ecosystems,” said Andrew Shikiar, director of global marketing for the LiMo Foundation. “I think they may face some challenges in finding Nokia competitors eager to support the output, due to some of the history behind the Symbian platform.”

Other observers had mixed views about how LiMo and the Symbian Foundation might compete. Ovum analyst Adam Leach said the Symbian Foundation is an endorsement of LiMo because it uses essentially the same model. He suggested that in the long term there might be an opportunity for the Symbian and Linux communities to join forces.

Gold has less-optimistic expectations for the effect on LiMo or Android. “As the Symbian Foundation moves to a royalty-free model, the advantages of Linux become much less clear,” he said.

The advantages of Windows Mobile may also become less clear, he said. “It may be more difficult for Microsoft to continue to justify its relatively high license fees for an OS that competes with a fully featured one that is offered for free,” he said. Windows Mobile will have to become free, or close to free, to remain competitive as the mobile market increasingly favors open source, he said.

Microsoft thinks differently. “I’ve been asked, Are we changing our strategy?” said Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Windows Mobile. “Absolutely not.”

By moving to open source, Symbian “opens themselves to the same challenges that other open-source OSes have encountered, which is fragmentation,” he said.

One concern about Android, for example, is that manufacturers are expected to be able to deploy components of the operating system as they please. That could create difficulties for application developers, since applications may not be run evenly across all Android devices.

With proprietary software like Windows Mobile, a developer can create an application and know that it works across all Windows Mobile phones, Rockfeld said.

He also doesn’t expect the cost of licensing Windows Mobile to become an issue. “The reality is that the cost of the OS pales in comparison to bringing the phone to market,” he said.

As for RIM and Apple, some observers said they probably won’t be affected by Symbian’s move. RIM has a solid foothold in a very specific market—that of e-mail-centric mobile devices, said the LiMo Foundation’s Shikiar. Gold said Apple’s loyal customer base is likely to continue supporting its products, although in time, as more features are added to Symbian, the iPhone may feel pressure.

Overall, the shift that Symbian is causing toward most smartphones being open source is a significant one for the mobile market. “Ultimately the drive toward openness is a profound and undeniable force underway,” Shikiar said.

Stephen Lawson of IDG News Service in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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