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Symbian: As Open As They Wanna Be (But How Much Is That?)

What with Google's Android currently stuck in the state of a work-in-progress, it was only a matter of time before someone else ponied up their own open source competition for the smartphone/handset market. But it isn't some newly-minted firm flush with a round of startup funding -- it's Nokia's own Symbian, to be merged with the S60, UIQ, and MOAP(S) platforms into one great big happy

What with Google's Android currently stuck in the state of a work-in-progress, it was only a matter of time before someone else ponied up their own open source competition for the smartphone/handset market. But it isn't some newly-minted firm flush with a round of startup funding -- it's Nokia's own Symbian, to be merged with the S60, UIQ, and MOAP(S) platforms into one great big happy open source mashup. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

We can put aside the fact that nothing will appear, even on paper, until well into next year. By that time the first Android handsets are likely to be out, even if they're still first-generation models designed more to hook early adopters than the broad swath of consumers. No matter: the intent is what matters, and the intent is to liberate Symbian from its proprietary roots and make it something that can be contributed to and derived from freely.

Again -- that's the theory. What strikes me first of all is that we are not just talking about one platform being opened, but several -- with pieces from each being merged into a whole. Small wonder we're not going to see anything solid with this until '09, since the Symbian Foundation (the new partnership between Nokia and basically everyone who's not Microsoft or Google) has to figure out exactly how all the pieces fit together. After Sun's hassles with opening Java, for instance, I don't believe for a minute that anyone can simply wave a Proprietary-to-GPL Wand and make the magic happen by fiat.

That would certainly explain the choice of licensing. Symbian's elected to use the non-GPL-compatible Eclipse Public License -- probably because it allows those who submit code to an EPL project to keep those submissions proprietary. Android's use of the Apache Software License is of the same flavor, and was probably adopted for the same reasons: so that folks who have technologies that give them competitive advantages won't feel like they're being told to surrender all that. The big difference, however, is that the ASL is compatible with at least one flavor of the GPL (version 3). Eclipse is not, and that right there sends a message as to what sort of crowd the "new" Symbian is meant to attract.

What I see mattering most with any open device initiative -- whether Google's or Nokia's or what have you -- is what kind of community is involved, and how the members are expected to contribute. A community that is more corporate-centric than truly developer-centric is going to stay corporate. Nokia is doing this primarily as a pre-emptive strike against Google (and Microsoft), to preserve turf that it fears will be eroded by both open source and proprietary solutions. So if there's a community here, it's one of industry partners and not guys at keyboards.