Nokia's Symbian Deal Rewrites The Smartphone Rules

Nokia's plan to make the mobile OS open source is sure to affect businesses that want to push more apps onto smartphones, and it could influence the role of open source software in general.
Windows Mobile almost certainly will remain a proprietary mobile operating system that can't be as easily altered as open source software. To counter this move, count on Microsoft taking steps similar to those it has taken to compete with Linux. For one, it brings formidable co-marketing budgets for Windows Mobile phones to drive sales for handset manufacturers and mobile carriers. In the fight for developers, while open source might give Symbian developers greater access, "developers are in Microsoft's DNA," says Scott Rockfeld, group product manager for Microsoft's mobile communications business, pointing to the 18,000 Windows Mobile apps already created. Rockfeld also contends that Windows Mobile can provide consistency that open source software can't, such as interoperability across all distributions.

Microsoft also aims to make Windows Mobile part of a larger, integrated experience, connecting its dominant desktop software with Windows Mobile and Windows Live to make Windows Mobile more compelling to potential buyers, though it must tread carefully because of regulators wary of Microsoft's desktop monopoly.

RIM and Apple would face their own challenges as proprietary systems that draw benefit from tight integration of their hardware and software platforms, while needing to be open to new apps. Palm also ties hardware and software, but it's developing a Linux-based successor to the current Palm OS. Open source Symbian takes some wind out of Google Android's sails, since it promised developer openness and zero cost, though Google issued a statement supporting the move.

All this hinges on the Symbian Foundation successfully managing what Nokia is promising: an OS thrown open to developers, including a malleable user interface and addressable low-level code.

The Symbian Foundation faces a huge governance challenge, as Linux's success shows. Zemlin notes the Linux Foundation is pushing developers of Linux distributions to adhere to standards on lower-level functionality, so software labeled "for Linux" will work across distributions. That's needed as mobile Linux sprawls from Google Android's full operating system and user interface to the LiMo Foundation's Linux-based middleware. Pieces of the LiMo Platform are in the Motorola Razr and Rockr today, and more than 50 members, including Symbian Foundation backers Motorola and Samsung, are involved with LiMo.

But if Nokia and the Symbian Foundation can pull off the transition and use open source to grow market share and fend off formidable rivals, it just might drive open source broadly to new heights. While much remains to be seen, a free, open source Symbian undoubtedly will alter the discourse about mobile operating systems and open source development in general.

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Symbian's Success Hinges On Community Involvement