Opening up Symbian – Good or Bad for Linux?

That’s the question raised by this recent Nokia press release:

Espoo, Finland – Nokia today announced it has launched a cash offer to acquire all of the shares of Symbian Limited that Nokia does not already own, at a price of EUR 3.647 per share. The net cash outlay from Nokia to purchase the approximately 52% of Symbian Limited shares it does not already own will be approximately EUR 264 million.

The acquisition is a fundamental step in the establishment of the Symbian Foundation, announced today by Nokia, together with AT&T, LG Electronics, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone. More information about the planned foundation can be found at http://www.symbianfoundation.org.

From the Symbian Foundation site:

The Symbian Foundation platform will be available to members under a royalty-free license from this non-profit foundation. The Symbian Foundation will provide, manage and unify the platform for its members. Also, it will commit to moving the platform to open source during the next two years, with the intent to use the Eclipse Public License. This will make the platform code available to all for free, bringing additional innovation to the platform and engaging even a broader community in future developments.

Keep in mind that while not a huge success in the US, Symbian does still account for about 60% of all smartphones, with the next OS a distant second at about 15%. So, what does this mean for mobile Linux? It’s still unclear to me the direction Nokia will take, so it’s hard to tell. They are all over the place at the moment. The have the GTK based maemo project, have recently acquired TrollTech for QT and now have an Open Source Symbian. Long term, they can’t possibly want to support all three of these. Looking at Symbian specifically, I’m not sure it can compete directly with the likes of the iPhone and Android. The UI looks old and clunky and it doesn’t have a lot of the functionality and polish of the newer mobile offerings. That said, developers know it, it has a huge application catalog and an entrenched base. Whether that will be enough for Symbian to make it out of the Open Source process alive remains to be seen though, and in my opinion it isn’t a certainty. What Nokia does get is 1) options and 2) the perception that they are not sitting on their hands while Android and the iPhone pass it by. Even if Symbian can’t compete feature for feature with something like Android, this announce will serve to remove one of its key advantages. That alone is likely worth the investment to Nokia.

Further Reading:
Linux Foundation
Red Monk
SAI

–jeremy

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