Not One, Not Two, but THREE Competing Open Source Mobile Operating Systems

by on June 25, 2008 · 20 comments

Global handset manufacturing giant Nokia has purchased the shares they didn’t already own in Symbian, Ltd., the company formed in 1998 as a partnership among Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Psion and the developer of the Symbian mobile operating system, by far the world’s leading OS for “smart mobile” phones with 67% of the market, followed by Microsoft on 13%, with RIM on 10% (source).

But wait, there’s more (per Engadget)!

Here’s where it gets interesting, though: rather than taking Symbian’s intellectual private for Nokia’s own benefit, the goods will be turned over to the Symbian Foundation, a nonprofit whose sole goal will be the advancement of the Symbian platform in its many flavors. Motorola and Sony Ericsson have signed up to contribute UIQ assets, while NTT DoCoMo (which uses Symbian-based wares in a number of its phones) will be donating code as well.

Other Symbian Foundation members include Texas Instruments, Vodafone, Samsung, LG, and AT&T (yep, the same AT&T that currently sells precisely one Symbian-based phone), so things could get interesting. The move clearly seems to be a preemptive strike against Google’s Open Handset Alliance, LiMo, and other collaborative efforts forming around the globe with the goal of standardizing smartphone operating systems; the writing was on the wall, and Symbian didn’t want to miss the train. Total cash outlay for the move will run Nokia roughly €264 million — about $410 million in yankee currency.

Other reports note that the Symbian Foundation will eventually take Symbian open source, and that this move is as much as response to Apple’s closed iPhone platform as it is to Gogole’s open Android and LiMo platforms.  (Although it is intriguing to note that AT&T, Apple’s exclusive U.S. partner for the iPhone, is among the backers of the new Symbian Foundation, perhaps indicating that even AT&T is hedging its bets.)

The fact that we will soon see three open source platforms (counting Google’s Android and LiMo) competing for market share provides yet another measure of the exceptionally high degree of competition in the wireless industry.  Even FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, hardly a “regulatory skeptic,” has recognized the significance of this aspect of wireless competition and widespread availability of wireless carrier choice in his recent statements indicating his intent to dismiss Skype’s Petition to impose open access requirements a la the FCC’s 1968 Carterfone decision, calling “wireless … the poster child for competition” and noting that “95 percent of the people in the U.S. can choose form at least three wireless operators competing to offer them service.”

Cumulatively, the increased competitiveness–and openness-of the wireless industry mitigates strongly against recent proposals for Carterfone-style requirements (see Tim Wu’s June 2007 piece); banning exclusive relationships between handset manufacturers and wireless carriers, as my colleague Barabara Esbin and I noted in our recent paper (PDF); heavy-handed regulation of early termination fees, as dicussed by Barbara (PDF) and other attempts to impose unnecessary regulations on an industry that is already the most competitive within the FCC’s purview and one in which open standards should facilitate continued innovation.

Nokia’s move is, in some respects, reminiscent of AOL’s 2003 decision to create the Mozilla Foundation.  If Symbian achieves even a fraction of Mozilla’s success with Firefox in growing a developer community that can build a strong product, the pace of wireless innovation could increase still further.

  • dimitris

    Hold the Mozilla comparisons. Symbian apps have to be signed, and to do anything interesting – like, say, change the S60 telephony app behavior for least-cost-routing – something, incidentally, built in with the UIQ flavor telephony app – is impossible.

    For the most part, Symbian Signed is there to make sure developers behave like good kiddies and don’t mess with Ma Telco’s business models. Can ou say, pocket tivoization?

    If something similar was (somehow) present in Mozilla, what are the chances the most popular Mopzilla extension would have existed?

    Symbian Signed will live on under the new foundation, so although opening the code will help with the currently average-to-occasionally-atrocious API documentation, it will still be a disruption-hostile platform.

  • dimitris

    Hold the Mozilla comparisons. Symbian apps have to be signed, and to do anything interesting – like, say, change the S60 telephony app behavior for least-cost-routing – something, incidentally, built in with the UIQ flavor telephony app – is impossible.

    For the most part, Symbian Signed is there to make sure developers behave like good kiddies and don’t mess with Ma Telco’s business models. Can ou say, pocket tivoization?

    If something similar was (somehow) present in Mozilla, what are the chances the most popular Mopzilla extension would have existed?

    Symbian Signed will live on under the new foundation, so although opening the code will help with the currently average-to-occasionally-atrocious API documentation, it will still be a disruption-hostile platform.

  • http://libregamewiki.org Kiba

    You forgot OpenMoko….

  • http://libregamewiki.org Kiba

    You forgot OpenMoko….

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    I don’t think this will amount to much. The barriers to entry are very high. Look at how many years and billions Microsoft has invested in Windows Mobile. I think Google is underestimating the difficulty of penetrating this market. It is a technical nightmare because of the proliferation of devices. It is an economic nightmare because of the inefficient channel and conflicting interests of vendors, carriers, etc. Kudos to them for trying, but unless they’re committed for 5-10 years, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of results.

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    Support Symbian!
    Symbian is a 32-digits system which is real-time and supports multiple-tasks.It's with low memory use.
    The most important thing is that it's a standard opening platform

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    There's a reason this guy's an analyst and not something useful like an engineer.

    How about starting off by grafting a melon to an albatross so your dessert can fly to you.

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    I've yet to take the leap into the mobile world, living away from the maddening crowds and able to do things on my own pace. That's to say I don't have a cell phone and cable hookup, but my only tie to the guys from… “can you hear me now”, are watching the ever widening pool of commercials they pump out. It's a 3g world, I'm just not living in it yet.

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    I've yet to take the leap into the mobile world, living away from the maddening crowds and able to do things on my own pace. That's to say I don't have a cell phone and cable hookup, but my only tie to the guys from… “can you hear me now”, are watching the ever widening pool of commercials they pump out. It's a 3g world, I'm just not living in it yet.

  • http://learnhypnosisinyourhome.com learn hypnosis

    I've yet to take the leap into the mobile world, living away from the maddening crowds and able to do things on my own pace. That's to say I don't have a cell phone and cable hookup, but my only tie to the guys from… “can you hear me now”, are watching the ever widening pool of commercials they pump out. It's a 3g world, I'm just not living in it yet.

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