Much of the cell phone industry, led by Nokia, sought to wrest control of its destiny from commercial software makers Tuesday with the announcement that it would convert its own Symbian operating system into a free, open source OS backed by a coalition of some of the world's biggest handset makers and mobile chip producers.
Nokia, already a 48% stakeholder in Symbian Ltd., said it would buy out the company's remaining shares from its telecom partners for $410 million and place the Symbian OS -- the world's most widely used mobile operating system -- into the hands of the open source movement under the royalty-free Eclipse Public License.
To steward the project, Nokia will partner with rival manufacturers Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and LG Electronics under the banner of a newly formed group called the Symbian Foundation. The group also includes AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, Texas Instruments, Vodafone, Samsung, and ST Microelectronics.
Foundation representatives said in a statement that the group plans to add the Nokia S60, DoCoMo MOAP, and UIQ mobile environments to Symbian to create "one open mobile software platform" that will be available over the next two years.
"We want to make this the most widely used software platform on the planet," said John Forsyth, Symbian's VP for strategy, in an interview. Symbian is used in about 66% of all smartphones and 6% of basic cell phones.
Forsyth pledged that, under open source governance, Symbian would continue its twice-yearly product release cycles. "We've got to keep that heartbeat going," he said.
In banding together, European and Asian handset makers are making it clear that they are not prepared to follow the PC industry in handing over their destiny to American software makers like Microsoft and Google.
PC makers have long been vexed by the fact that the most valuable piece of real estate on their systems -- the user interface -- is for the most part controlled by Microsoft, a situation that Redmond has leveraged to create numerous revenue-generating products and partnerships while dictating key standards and collecting license fees.
Microsoft has been looking to replicate that scenario in the cell phone market through its Windows Mobile OS. Google, meanwhile, recently entered the fray with its Android Alliance, an open source platform that could help the company extend its dominance of search advertising into the mobile market.
But a growing number of handset makers want the freedom to create their own user experience -- and milk the associated revenue opportunities themselves. "The question which every [equipment maker] has been asking itself is, 'How do I change the ratio between what I spend on commodity engineering and differentiation?' " said Forsyth.