Symbian Shifts Mobile World to Open Source

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’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.

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.

“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” Mary McDowell, Nokia’s chief development officer, agreed. 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.

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.”

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.

The shift that Symbian is causing toward most smartphones being open source is a significant one for the mobile market.

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