26 June 2008

The Symbian Foundation launched... 

Well, almost - subject to regulatory approval!

What is it? A shakeup of the management and development of the most common mobile phone software platform. For those that don't know, Symbian Ltd is a UK company that grew out of the excellent Psion Organiser company. Symbian, which has some of the major mobile hand-set manufacturers including Nokia, Sony Ericsson and Motorola. Although taking a much lower profile than Microsoft or Apple the Symbian operating system (OS) accounts for 60% of the smart-phone market.

What's changing? Responsibility for Symbian and several of the user interfaces that run on it are being moved to a new not-for-profit organisation call the Symbian Foundation. What's interesting is that Symbian Ltd is being bought by Nokia (which already owns 48%) for around £209 so all the engineers that currently develop the OS will be Nokia employees - not part of the foundation.

Why? There are a lot of claims. One of the most compelling is to create a huge base of software developers supporting this system rather than competitors. Many people already develop for Symbian, but currently different manufacturers have their own customisations. The Foundation aims to bring consistency.

In a move reminescent of the launch of the Mozilla Foundation which brought the world the FireFox browser, the aims of this new Symbian Foundation will ultimately be to create a free and open source mobile platform (using the Eclipse Public License). That's going to take some time - two years according to the roadmap.

Accouding to a white paper on the new Foundations web-site (http://www.symbianfoundation.org/) funding will be from device manufacturers. There's no clear indication how this works or how much each manufacturer will contribute, how that will vary over time. Since any organisation can become a "Member" for the princely sum of $1500, it's unclear why any additional device manufacturers would need to provide funding. Prior to full open-source release only members will get access to the underlying software - but for $1500 per year membership is hardly a barrier.

There are plenty of questions raised by the white paper, particularly in relation to open source. Those at the forefront of my mind include :

  • Apparently only members can contribute code to the organisation - but that isn't consistent with a true open-source model where anyone in theory can contribute code - subject to peer review and quality etc.
  • The direction of the OS will be set by a board of directors consisting of the current device manufacturers - not by the community itself. They will be the main beneficiaries, but this could handicap the operating system. Innovation often comes from a fresh point of view.
  • All the current closed-source developers from Symbian will become Nokia employees. It's difficult to see how this prevents Nokia having almost complete control over the direction of the OS. Other manufacturers can of course contribute code - but they won't have any of the key developers or the engineering influence. This should be balanced by the need for Nokia not to alienate the other major manufacturers and let in either Microsoft or Google Android, but in a pinch do they use their development resource for a short-term gain - or help out a competitor?
  • Having the direction of Symbian Foundation dictated by the handset manufacturers could prevent a very good operating system reaching it's full potential under the Symbian banner.

Where could this take Symbian? I believe the underlying code has a very good real-time design with very robust coding. There seems no reason why Symbian should be limited to the mobile handset market. Once it's there as open source I can imagine it being an ideal candidate for set-top boxes, internet radios and in fact almost any embedded consumer product requiring an OS. The characteristics that make it ideal are precisely those that embedded Linux advocates are still trying to bolt onto that operating system. If the Symbian Foundation doesn't want to go down that route (it'd be sensible to focus!) then the open source license allows for "derivative works". One of the presenters at yesterdays press conference happened to work for a company that also builds set-top boxes!

I look forward to seeing how this change pans out. Release 4 million lines of proprietary closely controlled source code out into the open is bound to have a few hiccups, but a lot can be learnt from previous efforts.

You can read more on the Symbian Foundation web-site.

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