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Is Symbian’s Open Sourcing Too Late?

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The Symbian Foundation announced their intention to open source the Symbian platform almost 20 months ago. While some consider this as an important move for the most deployed platform in mobile devices, others think that it is too late.

Developed over a period of 10 years and worth billions of dollars, the 108 packages of source code plus the Symbian Development Kit and the Product Development Kit, both kits being compatible with Symbian, are being available for download but they will be feature complete later this quarter. The event took place 4 months ahead of schedule, possibly as a competitive move to counter the growing influence of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

Symbian is backed by Nokia, AT&T, LG, Motorola, NTT Docomo, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, Texas Instruments and Vodafone and is the operating system of some 330 million phones worldwide accounting for almost 50% of the mobile market. Open sourcing the platform is expected to have an important impact on this trendy market, but the move is seen differently by different people.

Lee Williams of the Symbian Foundation explained why it was necessary to open source Symbian to speed up the development process:

When we chatted to companies who develop third party applications, we found people would spend up to nine months just trying to navigate the intellectual property. That was really hindering the rate of progress.

Williams also denied that it was a marketing move, according to the BBC:

The ideas we are executing ideas came 12-18 months before Android and before the launch of the original iPhone.

Compared to iPhone which is fully locked-in and Android which contains significant proprietary code like Google Docs, GMail or Calendar, Symbian might look quite attractive to device manufactures and developers because it is fully open source, all its software.

Tony Bradley, an editor for PC World wrote on who is going to benefit from Symbian’s open sourcing:

  1. First of all, Nokia “because it pumps new blood into the waning platform without any effort or investment from Nokia. While Nokia moves on to creating new devices built on its Linux-based Maemo platform, it will still gain a marketing and public relations boost from its relationship with Symbian and its dominant contribution to the development of the smartphone platform.”
  2. Manufacturers. They will have an alternative to Android and will take it especially those who are “reluctant to partner too closely with Google”.
  3. Developers. “It's hard to ignore a market of 330 million potential customers. Just based on economy of scale, even a mediocre Symbian app could be quite lucrative.”
  4. Businesses. They will be able to customize the platform and “develop unique applications to integrate Symbian smartphones with the enterprise, and streamline business processes.”
  5. Users. They will be attracted with new applications and features to come.

Nonetheless, Bradley thinks its days are numbered:

Making Symbian open source may stop some of the hemorrhaging of market share Symbian has experienced, and it is almost guaranteed to extend the useful life of the platform. However, it is still yesterday's smartphone platform and Symbian's days are still numbered--the number is just higher now.

LinuxInsider also explored the ramifications of Symbian's move, and gathered feedback from several people with the general consensus among them being that this move is likely too late to make a difference, and that the Symbian platform has rapidly lost relevance in the current mobile device market due to the gains of the iPhone and Android platforms, and the absence of an app store from the Symbian platform.

Dana Blankenhorn, a ZDNet editor, thinks that Symbian will lose because the game has changed:

Symbian is the product of a carrier-focused world where voice minutes mattered and data came only from walled gardens. Carriers like Verizon Wireless openly bragged about their control over customers, how every program running on their gear was pre-approved, and how they were getting a cut on every bit. The networks were strong, the devices weak.

It’s not that way anymore. We are evolving toward a world where the devices are strong but the networks weak. A lot of iPhone data traffic runs over WiFi. It’s the Internet, stupid.

The result is there is a lot more demand for bits, but carriers don’t get as much per-bit as they did before. The result is that consumers look at their devices as being more akin to computers than to phones.

This is not the world Symbian made. This is the world it is trying to enter. This is the world Symbian’s partners, on the whole, ignored as it was coming on. Why should they be trusted to lead now?

Ryan Paul, an ArsTechnica editor, considered that Symbian has made an important move but it is going to be hard to make up for the lost ground:

Symbian has come a long way in a short period of time, but the foundation still has plenty of work to do if it wants to retain Symbian's historical dominance. Major Symbian backers like Nokia are boosting their commitments to Linux and delivering Linux-based products that outshine their best Symbian-based offerings. Meanwhile, individual mobile application developers are increasingly gravitating towards Apple's iPhone platform. The Symbian Foundation's efforts to overhaul its operating system are very promising, but it will be tough to overcome the perception that Symbian's relevance is in decline. Kernel source code availability is another positive step in the right direction, though.

What do you think? Is Symbian going to regain mindshare, and consequently market share, or will it continue to slowly lose more ground as it has happened over the last few years?

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