The mobile phone operating system world was rocked recently by the announcement that Nokia had acquired all of the shares of Symbian that it didn’t already own, and that it planned to transition the OS to an open-source licensing model. How significant is this move?
The reaction to this news by most mobile device market analysts has generally ranged from indifference to cautious praise.
CCS Insight analyst Geoff Blaber, for example, suggests in a blog post that Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian is “a shrewd response to growing threats from other providers of mobile phone software.” Given that the company paid more than $250 million in license fees to Symbian in 2007, Nokia’s 100 percent acquisition of Symbian for $410 million makes perfect sense, instead of continuing to pay “what is effectively a subsidy to [Symbian's] other shareholders,” explains Blaber.
Additionally, Blaber believes Nokia was concerned about Symbian’s competitiveness with the other main mobile OS alternatives. He writes…
“Over the last ten years, Symbian has grown into the dominant supplier of smartphone operating systems, but it’s being challenged by a variety of new contenders:
- The LiMo Foundation has strong support from network operators, which have been attracted by its governance model. Operators believe they have more opportunity to influence the direction of this open-source platform than with Symbian and its S60 and UIQ user interfaces.
- Apple has raised the bar from a technical perspective, and Symbian licensees need to respond quickly to its touch-screen user interface, high performance and easy-to-use development tools.
- Google has challenged the commercial model, stating that its [Linux-based] Android platform has reduced the cost of software to ‘close to zero.’ ”
The acquisition of Symbian by Nokia is likely to have disruptive repercussions, writes market analyst Andreas Constantinou in a post on Vision Mobile’s blog.
Constantinou sees Nokia’s Symbian acquisition as being a defensive maneuver, to combat the adoption of Google’s Linux-based Android mobile phone OS. He writes: “Firstly, as a royalty-free, open source licensed OS, [Google's] Android was too hard to resist for any OEM.” On top of that, given that “Motorola [has been] bleeding heavily in a financial sense,” acquiring and open-sourcing Symbian became Nokia’s only “strategic choice [for] keeping Google from becoming the Android-inside of the mobile industry,” adds Constantinou.
“The Nokia+Symbian disruption is now creating three centres of gravity around licensable mobile software: LiMo, Android, and the Symbian Foundation (one could also add Qualcomm BREW for specific markets),” Constantinou observes. “Besides layoffs at UIQ, the repercussions to the industry will be far-reaching, but the full story will take time to unravel — after all the first Symbian Foundation devices are not expected until 2010,” concludes his blog post.
Along with its acquisition of Symbian, Nokia also announced the creation of a Symbian Foundation, which initially counts AT&T, LG Electronics, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, and Vodafone as its corporate members. According to the Foundation’s website, the organization’s mission is “to bring to life a shared vision and to create the most proven, open and complete mobile software platform — available for free.” The organization expects to launch its activities during the first half of 2009, with membership will be open to all organizations for the modest annual fee of $1,500.
How will Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian impact the company’s use of embedded Linux as the OS in its N-series Internet tablets? In an interview with LinuxDevices.com, Nokia director of open source Ari Jaaksi asserted that this will not impact his company’s commitment to Linux as the N-series tablets’ embedded OS. “By no means does this activity indicate that we are abandoning our Maemo and Linux activity,” Jaaksi reportedly said. “Maemo and Linux will be a separate activity, but we have plans to go faster with that track, too.”
At the time of the Trolltech acquisition, Nokia said it expected that purchase to accelerate its cross-platform software strategy for mobile devices and desktop applications, and to enhance its Internet services business. This strategy was confirmed by LinuxDevices.com’s most recent interview with Nokia’s Jaaksi, in which he reportedly stated, “Our goal is to have the same UI on both Linux and Symbian, and the Qt platform lets us move forward toward that, with its cross platform technology.”
So, will Nokia’s acquisition of Symbian make much of a difference to the overall market? Consiering that the mobile phone market still has the same set of OS alternatives…
…only two things have changed:
- Nokia now has complete control of Symbian
- Symbian’s code will soon be available under an open source license
Both of these primarily benefit Nokia, and seem unlikely to convince Nokia’s mobile phone competitors that aren’t already using Symbian to adopt Symbian, rather than using one or another form of mobile Linux.
“Perhaps this is an open admission that the pressure from the Linux industry is really forcing Nokia and Symbian to change their game,” although “questions remain as to whether the solution will be truly open and what the cost of a foundation membership will be,” comments mobile wireless research director Stuart Carlaw on ABI Research’s blog. “But one thing is for sure, it is refreshing to see Nokia showing real agility and vision, and it will change the landscape significantly,” concludes Carlaw.
In general, it seems unlikely that this deal will do much to deter the growing penetration of Linux into the mobile phone market. However, Nokia’s commitment to open-source Symbian does turn Windows Mobile into the “odd man out” — the only major mobile phone OS that’s not available under a genuine open source license.
Will this compel Microsoft to follow suit? Time will tell!