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Symbian Smartphone Platform Goes Free, Partly Open Source

Nokia will buy out the other owners of Symbian, a firm that develops the same-named smartphone operating system that dominates the worldwide market for phones that double as palmtop portable computers. Nokia will sign the software over to a new foundation, and gradually release parts of the platform under an open-source license. This move challenges Google’s Android platform, developed as part of a large consortium called the Open Handset Alliance, and Apple’s worldwide push for the iPhone (see “Google’s View of Our Cell Phone Future Is an Android, Not a
,” 2007-11-12).

Nokia Builds a Unified Platform — Nokia plans to form the non-profit Symbian Foundation in 2009 that will include some of the other current minority owners – notably Sony Ericsson and Samsung – and add massive telcos like Japan’s NTT DoCoMo, worldwide carrier Vodafone (in Europe, India, Australia, and New Zealand), and AT&T in America. They’ll also pick up handset makers LG and Motorola and chipmaker Texas Instruments (TI). LG, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, Samsung, and TI are also members of the Open Handset Alliance, and the three carriers offer and will offer competing smartphone platforms. AT&T and Vodafone sell the iPhone 3G.

As part of Nokia’s acquisition, a few other smartphone platforms and variants will be folded into the main Symbian arm, reducing overlap as well as choices, and ostensibly providing a more robust system by choosing superior components from each to build into Symbian. This includes Nokia’s internal S60 platform, DoCoMo’s MOAP, and UIQ, owned by Sony Ericsson and Motorola.

A fully revised platform incorporating elements from S60, MOAP, and UIQ won’t ship until 2010, but components will start being released in 2009, and all future platform development for Symbian and S60 will be forward compatible. One such component slated for 2009 is the S60WebKit, an already open-sourced component of the S60 platform that itself relies on the same underlying open-source components in WebKit used by Apple for its Safari browser and anything in Mac OS X that renders Web pages and widgets in other programs. WebKit is not identical to Safari: it acts as the foundation for JavaScript interpretation and rendering.

Symbian Everywhere Except U.S. — While we don’t know much about Symbian in the United States, that’s an aberration, in part due to Nokia’s lack of interest in creating CDMA phones for Verizon and Sprint back when CDMA ruled the roost before T-Mobile, Cingular, and AT&T Wireless built a complementary robust national GSM market. (Cingular and AT&T Wireless merged and then were folded into the new AT&T.)

The Symbian platform powered 67 percent of smartphones sold worldwide in 2007, according to research firm Canalys. In contrast, Windows Mobile hit 13 percent and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry OS 10 percent. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Apple showed up with 7 percent of worldwide sales by platform, while Symbian dropped to 65 percent, Windows Mobile dipped very slightly to 12 percent, and RIM increased a tad to 11 percent. Linux filled in the remaining 5 percent.

In the United States, the BlackBerry OS dominates with 42 percent of sales last quarter, Apple has 27 percent, and Microsoft 21 percent. In the Asian-Pacific region, Symbian owns 85 percent of new smartphone sales, and it has 80 percent in the combined markets of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Conserving Costs, and Reducing Fees — Nokia says all members of the new Symbian Foundation will receive royalty-free licenses to use the system. In contrast, Nokia paid $250 million to Symbian for licenses in 2007, even though they were the 48-percent minority owner. The $410 million buyout seems to make perfect sense for all the partners, and it’s a way to compete more effectively against upstarts by reducing reasons not to use Symbian. (Symbian is privately held, and releases limited financial data, the most recent being in 2006. While the company booked a large profit in a variety of categories, it’s unclear how much was rebated
to shareholders, and it’s also apparent that Nokia will continue to need to fund the foundation along with its new partners.)

The Google-backed Android platform has no royalty or license fees. The alliance behind it has started by releasing application components under an open-source license, and plans “over time” to release “more of the code that makes up Android” as open source. The first Android-based phones are expected to be offered on T-Mobile’s network in late 2008.

Apple, Microsoft, and RIM have software developer kits for developing software on their platforms, but don’t have open-source policies for their operating systems. (Apple has to release certain improvements they make to open-source and other code that they modify and distribute as part of the iPhone’s OS, but they aren’t required to release the entire platform, just as with Mac OS X.)

Apple and RIM find themselves in the same camp now, as hardware makers that also control a platform, compared with Android, Windows Mobile, and Symbian, which are platforms that can be licensed by any qualifying handset maker. Neither Apple nor RIM has any conceivable motivation to license their platforms.

This could put pressure on Microsoft to change the terms and nature of Windows Mobile royalties and licensing – it charges $14 per phone today – although it’s hard to see what that gains them, as Windows Mobile phones are designed for tight enterprise integration. With many of those integration features now in the iPhone, along with RIM’s U.S. market share, the Redmond giant may need to shake up its plans.

One Master, One Recipe — Nokia has shifted the sands somewhat. While I’m reminded of Fake Steve Jobs’s classic post last year on the Open Handset Alliance, it seems like this move reduces the number of cooks involved in Symbian, turning a company with many masters into a foundation with a single purpose.

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