The Symbian mobile software is already what Google Android aspires to be: the world’s dominant smartphone operating system (it runs Nokia smartphones, among others). But it isn’t free, or I should say wasn’t free until today. Nokia announced that it was buying the shares of Symbian that it doesn’t own — the licensing company was founded in 1998 by Ericsson, Motorola, Nokia — in order to make it a free and open-source software platform.
The software will be contributed to a foundation that will provide a royalty-free license to members. Carriers Vodafone, NTT DoCoMo, and AT&T, as well as Samsung and LG Electronics, are becoming members. According to the press release:
Contributions from Foundation members through open collaboration will be integrated to further enhance the platform. The Foundation will make selected components available as open source at launch. It will then work to establish the most complete mobile software offering available in open source. This will be made available over the next two years and is intended to be released under Eclipse Public License (EPL) 1.0.
The Foundation’s platform will build on the leading open mobile software platform, with more than 200 million phones, across 235 models, already shipped by multiple vendors and tens of thousands of third-party applications already available for Symbian OS-based devices.
The idea here is to open up the platform in order to accelerate innovation. In some sense this can be seen as response to the efforts of the iPhone and Google’s Android platform to open up or shake up the mobile ecosystem. Now, however, you have multiple, competing platforms that developers must consider.
From a market share standpoint, Symbian is dominant because of Nokia’s success as a handset maker. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that carriers were delaying the release of Android-based phones. However, Google says they remain on track for a Q4 release. What’s amazing here is the rapid movement toward open-source in mobile: LiMo, Android, and now Symbian.
The iPhone, with its unique position in the market, is unlikely to suffer from this trend (Blackberry too). However, its impact may be felt by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform. Right now it’s the smartphone OS that is arguably the least “sexy” to developers, and Microsoft will need to act and step up its release schedule if it hopes to keep pace with others that are moving faster.