Symbian's Open Source Gambit Ups Stakes In Mobile OS War

Nokia's moves to make Symbian a free and open mobile operating system should put pressure on competitors to keep innovating and giving customers what they want.
"When you look at the consumer space and the business space, they're familiar with the experience around Windows and they'll always be interested in one plus one equals three," Rockfeld said. What he didn't mention, however, was that any attempt to tether the three platforms together by default and without other choices will likely be met by the closely watching eyes of regulators wary of Microsoft's desktop monopoly.

As for the open sourcing of Symbian, Microsoft takes a tack it has taken with Linux in the past, arguing that Windows Mobile can provide a consistency that open source software can't. "They're going to be introduced to some of the same challenges some other open source endeavors have encountered, such as fragmentation," Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, said in an interview. "There seems to be more Linux consortiums than there are users of Linux."

Linux -- since Rockfeld used it as a parallel -- has long struggled to gain a sense of consistency across its distributions, though the Linux Foundation continues to make strides in pushing for standards across the different Linux distributions. According to Zemlin, the Symbian Foundation could take similar steps: define opens standard based on Symbian, write a test framework to validate with that standard, create app tools to write to the standard, and create a trademark like Symbian Certified that indicates compliance. Nokia also likely made a conscious choice to make Symbian available under the Eclipse Public License, not the less restrictive General Public License.

Still, as of today there are a number of mobile Linux consortiums, each working on their own Linux-based mobile projects. Google, with Android, is working on a full operating system with user interface, and others like the LiMo Foundation are working to make a series of Linux-based middleware components like a cell phone's telephony framework and messaging framework available.

Conventional wisdom might be that open source Symbian could be a major blow to Google Android because Google's main value proposition was to be its openness to developers, but Google disagrees.

"Openness fosters innovation, benefiting consumers," Google said in a short statement responding to Nokia's announcement. "We're very pleased to see other major players in the mobile industry moving in this direction." The more open any software platform gets (not just Symbian and Android), the more hooks Google has to sell advertising on those platforms.

Pieces of the LiMo Platform are available today in the Motorola Razr and Rockr in the United States, and more than 50 members including Motorola and Samsung are involved. While LiMo director of global marketing said in an interview that he welcomed Nokia's embrace of openness, he questioned their ability or willingness to carry through.

"What we saw today was a press release, but I think the devil could be in the details," he said. He questioned how open the governance of Symbian's development would be, and whether the manufacturing industry would be uncomfortable with Nokia's potentially increased role in that development.

The Linux Foundation's Zemlin, whose dog in the race would be several Linux distributions, notes several potential trouble spots for Symbian. One is interoperability with legacy Symbian applications, which could hurt Symbian's next version for much the same reason Windows Vista has been held back by businesses and consumers alike. Also, while mobile Linux culls its code from across the computing spectrum (it runs on DVRs, desktops, embedded systems, etc.) Symbian won't have the same level of input, relying instead only on the smaller universe of developers who know mobile software.

Despite the competitive challenge, he said, the decision to open source Symbian could play in LiMo's favor. Symbian's dominance inherently moves the conversation about open source from a debate on the merits of openness to one on the tactics of openness, Shikiar said. "It's really what the industry needs, more commitment to openness and collaboration," he said.

But Microsoft and Linux aren't Nokia's only targets. The iPhone continues its rise, and BlackBerry addicts keep typing away. RIM said it typically does not comment on competitors' actions, but will undoubtedly be pressed to do so during its quarterly earnings call Wednesday afternoon. Palm also declined comment, while Apple did not respond to requests.