Symbian's open road leads away from the smartphone

24 June 2008

The obvious question when faced with today's decision by Nokia to buy out Symbian and release the software as open source was: if you have shipped 200 million handsets, what was the problem that forced you to do this? During the presentation that attempted to explain the move, executives such as Nokia executive vice president Kai Öistämö used the not-so-convincing argument that because Symbian has a 60 per cent share of the market, having charged up to $5 a handset to manufacturers, everything was going to be even better now that it is going to be free. Somehow, making it open source would dragoon in a bunch of application developers and convince everyone that Symbian is the only game in town in handsets. Forget Android, forget Limo and definitely don't bother about the closed-like-a-clam Apple iPhone.

Yet, despite having had ten years to build an unbeatable handset operating system, Symbian almost stumbled at the last hurdle. Nokia's majority ownership of the software maker has been a stumbling block with manufacturers, some of whom chose to build other user interfaces on top of the operating system to prevent Nokia from maintaining a stranglehold with the Series 60 environment. That is where environments such as UIQ and MOAP – used largely in Japan – have come in.

The situation has irritated operators such as Vodafone who find themselves having to deal with three different flavours of mobile phone built on ostensibly the same base when they have tried to tie back the number of platforms they support. Several years ago, Vodafone decided to try to restrict the amount of time it spent on software by picking three platforms: Limo; Microsoft; and Symbian. The idea of being able to bring Symbian back to one piece of software is far more attractive than the current situation.

The other problem for Symbian is that, since the iPhone, everyone has stopped caring about the operating system. All that mattered is who owned it and now, although Nokia takes on all the developers, the manufacturers seem happy with the source code going into a foundation. But, when it comes to phone design, it's now all about the user experience and having three or four companies slug it out over calendar applications and the like is not helping them sell more phones or more airtime. That is where Series 60, UIQ and MOAPS come in: they are where the action is for the handset makers and operators. The underlying operating system is simply a substrate.

This is where the picture of what actually happens with the Symbian Foundation gets hazy. Nokia is already some way down the road of deciding what software will be open-sourced, a process that could take two years to complete. The other players have agreed to sign up but it's unclear how much of UIQ and MOAPS will be in the final environment. Lee Williams, senior vice president for S60 software at Nokia said he reckoned the core environment will be based largely on S60 with components coming from the other guys. UIQ, for example, has a lot of touchscreen support that S60 does not.

Although the UIQ shareholders have agreed to back the Symbian Foundation by offering the environment up royalty free, some things have still to be decided, said Alain Mutricy, senior vice president of Motorola. "We are discussing right now with the UIQ management team how to restructure UIQ within the new ecosystem that is created by this move." He added later: "If we talk about two years down the road, we have to discuss with the shareholders and management team how their business model will adapt to the new ecosystem. But we will contribute the UIQ technology as and when the foundation is established."

For Vodafone, Symbian is still not the only game in town. Guido Arnone, director of Vodafone, said the company is continuing to work on the Linux-based Limo. "There is some competition but I believe it can be very complementary. Limo is relevant to higher end mobile touchscreen devices. Symbian is more lower tier. There is an air of competition for sure but there are areas where they are complementary to each other."

Tommi Uhari, executive vice president of STMicroelectronics, said he thought the removal of the royalty would help lower the point at which handset makers use Symbian. Although it was originally devised to drive the smartphone business, it now seems to be heading towards the featurephone. There is still the Linux option for handset makers and operators looking at the business Symbian might once have expected to command: the higher-end smartphones and mobile internet devices.