Nokia will buy Symbian, but doesn't want to control it

"This is the fastest and the best way [to] go forward," said Nokia's XVP yesterday. "What we are gaining here is the knowledge and the experience from the employee base in Symbian Ltd. For Nokia, this is a good investment."

During yesterday's press conference with soon-to-be members of the Symbian Foundation -- the group being assembled by Nokia after its historic purchase of Symbian Ltd. is complete -- the one aspect of the deal that reporters couldn't quite wrap their heads around was this: Nokia wants to set Symbian free, so it's buying it. Is this how Nokia expects to answer the challenge from Google's Open Handset Alliance with Android?

"It's important to look at this as a market-making move," Nokia Executive Vice President Kai Oistamo told reporters yesterday. "Looking at this as a response to anything would not be making any justice to the boldness and the magnitude of the change that we are creating today. We are [giving], technologically, the most proven software to open source, offering it royalty-free for anybody out there to develop and create products from this asset. It really has...an unparalleled existing ecosystem already, 200 million handsets out there today, 400 four million developers.

Continuing in the participle-speckled, active verb-devoid phraseology made popular by Microsoft's Bill Gates, Oistamo continued, "Putting it into an open source community controlled by no single company. Creating, I would say, an ecosystem; creating a gravitational pull for application developers that I don't think any application developer, service developer, really can afford to pass going forward."

What does "free" actually mean, from a revenue standpoint? Right now, the royalty rates for manufacturers wishing to implement Symbian on a smartphone platform start at $5 per unit sold, and with enough quantity can be reduced to as low as $2.50 per unit, according to Symbian Ltd. CEO Nigel Clifford, soon to become a Nokia employee.

Does Symbian have any regrets about not only being bought out, but watching its key revenue center -- its intellectual property rights (IPR) -- folded into a multi-company organization?

"IPR begins to have less of a meaning in the world that we're entering into," remarked Clifford. "Proper management and good configuration, good release protocols, are really what the Foundation is going to be doing, as well as presenting a unified developer network, [in] which we'll be talking to all of the developers that are accessing the Symbian Foundation code. So there will be people, we anticipate, coming from Nokia, from Symbian, from others to populate the foundation; but it will have a very defined purpose."

Not two weeks ago, Nokia's own vice president of software, Dr. Ari Jaaksi, told a handsets conference in Berlin that open source developers seeking to break into the mobile space need a quick education on the business rules and business models regarding proprietary intellectual property, especially digital rights management -- models the open source community typically eschews.

If this was the first statement you'd ever heard from Dr. Jaaksi, you'd think he might work for Microsoft. Actually, he was speaking in a much broader context of moving the open source realm into the realm of broader business deals, where the key players come to the table with their own intellectual property portfolios. In a personal blog post a few weeks earlier, he suggested that with so many devices and designs concurrently available on the market, the only way to come up with a workable development model is through open source.

"In the traditional phone business, things may be a bit more difficult. Traditional phones have already good operating systems and software optimized for their reasonably narrow set of use cases and for fixed business ecosystems," Dr. Jaaksi wrote in May. "So, it'll be more difficult to change that landscape to more open direction. I thought the same was the case with the PC -- but Ubuntu may be proving me wrong. So you never know about the traditional phones either. The sure thing, though, is that for all new interesting highly connected devices, Linux and open source is the way to go. This is my opinion."

It's a well-stated opinion, but it may also have cleverly (intentionally or not) contributed to analyst speculation up until yesterday, over whether Nokia had plans to join the Open Handset Alliance or partner with Google on Android.

During yesterday's press conference, one reporter specifically referred to Jaaksi's viewpoint, and asked the Symbian Foundation's future board members -- including Nokia -- how they plan to reconcile their open and free business model with the real world of proprietary interests, as Jaaksi suggested any open source provider should do.

"Part of our world is that world," responded Symbian's Nigel Clifford, referring to the realm where business deals over proprietary IP and interoperability already take place. "We've been living in a very disciplined, very focused, mobile-orientated environment for the last ten years. So we understand what operators need, we understand what mobile handset manufacturers need, silicon vendors, and application partners. And we do that stuff; that's what we do every single day.

"So what we're doing with this announcement is doing that...in a slightly different business model; i.e., for free. And we're taking away the licensing barriers to people reaching in and using our software. Now, that doesn't mean that this now becomes a free-for-all. That is the idea of the Foundation, that there is still a body there which understands disciplines, which understands the mechanisms that are required to satisfy those very demanding end users, those stakeholders. So I would say we're providing the best of all worlds here; we've got proven software...built from day one to address the very issues that the mobile industry requires, and we're doing it in a way which talks very directly to the open source community, inviting many more millions of developers to just come and play."

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