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Symbian's Move Toward Open Source Gathers Steam

Open source Symbian is on track to have a preliminary version ready in early 2009. With AT&T's support, the mobile OS may be able to finally crack the U.S. market.

The momentum to turn Symbian into an open source mobile operating system is strong, and developers can expect to see a preliminary version in the first half of 2009, said Lee Williams, nominated executive director of the Symbian Foundation.

Symbian is the dominant mobile operating system, with nearly 50% of the global market. But it has faced increased competition from entrenched players like Research In Motion, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and relatively new players like Apple and the Google-backed Android platform. In June, Nokia announced plans to purchase the remaining stock in Symbian and spin it into a royalty-free operating system under the Eclipse Public License. The goal was to harness the innovation of the open source environment to increase market share, as well as to attract application developers.

The Symbian Foundation was created to steward that transition, and it includes industry heavyweights such as AT&T, Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, and T-Mobile. During a roundtable event at the Symbian Partner Event in San Francisco Thursday, executives from AT&T, Nokia, Symbian, and Visa discussed the progress and obstacles of moving to open source.

Williams said the foundation has hit or surpassed many of its internal milestones regarding operations and processes, and it will begin recruiting and hiring soon. Foundation members are still in the process of "code bashing" Symbian with Nokia's S60, DoCoMo's Mobile Oriented Applications Platform, and UIQ to create the new platform.

Symbian and S60 in particular have been optimized around the "scroll and select" input method. This makes devices like the Nokia E71 easy to use one-handed, but it has also led to a somewhat stagnant user interface, particularly in comparison to the iPhone 3G and even the Android-powered G1. Williams said the foundation has the opportunity to blend the functionality of the existing Symbian with advanced touch and sensor methods that could ultimately lead to a more usable and visually pleasing UI.

Applications and developers will be crucial to the success of the new Symbian, and a developer relations program is being set in place. One knock on Symbian has been that it's a powerful operating system, but developing for it can be costly and difficult. Williams said the foundation wants to ensure that developers of all kinds will be able to create content with programs they are familiar with such as Flash. He also praised how Apple and Google have made creating applications for their mobile platforms easy, particularly for small companies, hobbyists, and content providers.

While popular across the globe, Symbian devices have not been able to capture a large market in North America. The United States is behind many other advanced countries in smartphone adoption rates and 3G networks, but it remains one of the largest potential markets. One major factor in the paltry U.S. adoption rate of Symbian phones is the relatively weak carrier support. That could change as AT&T appears to be taking a large role in the foundation.

Roger Smith, director of next generation services for AT&T, said the mobile operator is looking to standardize on as few mobile platforms as possible over the next few years in order to avoid fragmentation. With its rich history in the mobile space, Symbian is a "credible candidate" to be one of the few operating systems that AT&T backs, Smith said.

"If done well and done right, this can be a game-changing event," Smith said of the open source Symbian.

Being involved with the mobile operating system potentially lets AT&T play a larger role in the ownership of the customer experience. For example, the iPhone 3G has been a big hit for AT&T, but users have virtually no contact with the carrier besides billing and customer service. Smith said a percentage of its customers may want the experience that the iPhone or BlackBerry provides, but there is a large chunk of its subscriber base that isn't being addressed.

"We're going to take more control over our destiny in the mobile operating space," Smith said.

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