New Symbian Foundation to take on Android, LiMo

It was an unprecedented and largely unexpected move by Nokia, which had for months allowed speculation that it may join the Open Handset Alliance and back Android. Now it's taking steps to own Symbian, and to put away its competition.

The Symbian platform -- or more accurately, platforms, plural -- already provided the software backbone behind an estimated 165 million deployed smartphones worldwide, at the end of 2007. But despite powering a good one-third of smartphones, by conservative analysts' estimates, many had already declared Symbian a "failure," using that very word, in comparison with Google's upcoming not-really-delayed Android Linux-based mobile platform, and the other mobile Linux platform openly developed by the LiMo Foundation.

What is absolutely astonishing is how few, if any, mobile analysts saw this morning's move coming: Nokia, one of the key stakeholders in Symbian, is acquiring the remaining share of development company Symbian Ltd. that it did not already own. Symbian Ltd., in other words, becomes a division of Nokia, in a deal expected to close at the end of this year, pending regulatory approval.

Immediately afterward, Nokia will set forth a plan to fuse together its three disparate user interface layers -- UIQ, NTT DoCoMo's MOAP, and Nokia's own S60 -- into a common framework. This will be the mission of the new Symbian Foundation, led by Nokia and launched in the first half of 2009. This it will be a time-consuming task, with at least one Symbian-oriented reporter estimating that part of the project won't be ready for final release until the third quarter of 2010.

"The first release of the unified Symbian Foundation platform is expected to be available during 2009," reads a white paper released today by the new Foundation's prototype body (PDF available here). "The platform will offer the means to build a complete mobile device while providing the tools to differentiate devices through tailoring of the user experience, applications and services. This will enable device manufacturers to create unique devices, based on a consistent and common platform, providing fuel and scale for the innovation of others.

That new framework, coupled with the underlying, newly upgraded Symbian OS, will then be licensed to the open source community under the Eclipse Public License. What distinguishes the EPL from the General Public License more familiar to Linux developers is that EPL's language explicitly excludes derivative works from being bound to the EPL. In so doing, that implies developers of derivatives may use their own choice of licenses -- presumably public licenses, though that's technically not described in the EPL.

That distinction is important to charter Foundation members such as Sony Ericsson, whose president, Dick Komiyama, stated today, "The complete, consistent platform that the Foundation plans to provide will allow manufacturers to focus on their unique differentiation at a device level."

All of a sudden, Google's Android looks like it's entering a very crowded and entrenched market. Granted, Symbian may only have a 4% market share in North and South America, by ABI Research estimates; but almost every analyst in this market will agree that North America is especially under-developed, by virtue of being the last market where new devices are typically rolled out. This may bestow upon Google the illusion of entering and conquering virgin territory -- an illusion which stretches from coast to coast, but may not extend much further beyond that.

Just last November, Symbian Ltd.'s vice president of strategy, John Forsyth, in an interview with the BBC, compared Android and other attempts to build an open mobile standard around Linux to "the common cold." "It keeps coming round and then we go back to business," Forsyth remarked. "We don't participate in these full stop. We make our own platform and we are focused on driving that into the mobile phone market at large ever more aggressively."

That comment led ABI Research Vice President Stuart Carlaw, the very next day, to declare Forsyth's approach arrogant and napve, saying, "The reason that Linux keeps raising its head is that some large segments of the industry are truly not happy with the options presented by Microsoft and Symbian. They offer little choice, cost a lot, and do not provide a true multi-vendor environment, and no one outside of a few companies with very unique situations (Nokia to name one) wants to be tied to the agenda of one company's development process. Linux offers the only feasible option to counter the hegemony of these two corporations."

Well, that has apparently changed. The list of hardware, software, and technology vendors and mobile carriers signing on to the new Symbian multi-vendor environment to be championed by Nokia include the following: AT&T, Broadcom, Digia, EA Mobile, Ericsson, Freescale Semiconductor, Fujitsu, LG, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, Plusmo, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Teleca, Texas Instruments, T-Mobile (one of Android's leading supporters to date), Vodafone (partner in Verizon Wireless), and Wipro Technologies. All of the hardware and technology providers and carriers on this list are charter members of the new Foundation's Board of Directors.

"The foundation will be responsible for managing the software roadmap and releasing the software platform, with the source code available to all foundation members. The development of the platform will be the responsibility of the foundation members, with the foundation coordinating development projects and managing the master code line."

So vendor lock-in is not the plan, at least not ostensibly; and if that was Nokia's intention from the beginning, it sure fooled the analysts. But this morning, the verdict appears to be that Symbian is learning from the success of LiMo, even if much of that success has yet to be realized.

In his report this morning, Ovum principal analyst Adam Leach wrote, "The creation of the Symbian Foundation reflects the fact that Symbian's competitive landscape has started to change rapidly over the past year with new entrants and old competitors increasing their influence. Linux has become a real threat to Symbian's business with a number of Linux initiatives gaining serious momentum (e.g. LiMo and Google's Open Handset Alliance). The success of LiMo is of particular importance here because the model that Nokia and others have adopted for the Symbian Foundation is essentially the same as that of LiMo. This is an endorsement of LiMo's approach and demonstrates that Nokia believes that this is part of its success."

But Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford today doesn't characterize his group as a follower in any respect. "Ten years ago, Symbian was established by far sighted players to offer an advanced open operating system and software skills to the whole mobile industry. Our vision is to become the most widely used software platform on the planet and indeed today Symbian OS leads its market by any measure. Today's announcement is a bold new step to achieve that vision by embracing a complete and proven platform, offered in an open way, designed to stimulate innovation, which is at the heart of everything we do."

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