When a $oftware company experiences a sudden access of generosity and donates its first born to the world of Open Source, what are we to think? They made so much money it was embarrassing? Or, it’s an act of desperation: We can’t sell it, maybe be they’ll use it if we give it away. Uncharitable minds add: And then we’ll make money telling others how to decipher inscrutable code and by explaining away bugs — not to be confused with fixing them. More politely: Give away the code and sell services around it. It can work, ask IBM and Red Hat. Or look at Google, it wouldn’t exist without the Open Source movement and its star, Linux, powering its servers, one million of them and counting.

Back to Symbian, what’s the real story? Admitting defeat or, having found a way to make money with the OS — finally? Knowing Nokia, certainly not the former. It is today the number one smartphone maker before RIM (Blackberry) and Apple. Nokia has no intention to cede the throne. But it’s not about making money with the Symbian OS either, that’s impossible. Let me explain.

Once upon a time, that was before Newton, Palm and Pocket PC, Psion, a British company, was the king of “organizers”, later called PDA, Personal Digital Assistants. Through the twists and turns of the genre’s history, perhaps a topic for another column, Psion lost its crown and went out of the PDA business. But the OS inside the Psion was a gem, this is an ex-user speaking, it multi-tasked without crashing. More twists and turns and a joint venture is born led by Nokia and Motorola, with followers such as Sony Ericsson and Samsung. Called Symbian, the company got the Psion OS. Symbian was to develop software for smartphones and make money licensing it to its partners.

Bad business model, bad timing, bad structure. Bad business model because handset makers don’t (or didn’t) actually care for software and don’t want to pay anything of significance for it. They (and their masters, the carriers) spend much more money on the nicely printed cardboard box than on the software inside. Bad timing because the smartphone market wasn’t really there when Symbian was born 10 years ago. The smartphone market only woke up around 2005 when Nokia, RIM and Palm totaled a few millions of units shipped that year.

Lastly, bad structure. No one was really in charge, the owners/competitors each wanted different features, a different user interface, application compatibility was nonexistent, unwanted even in many cases and development tools weren’t up to the power and quality PC developers enjoyed. Symbian kept losing money and Nokia, viewed as the main beneficiary of the messy joint venture, kept pouring cash in.

Today, we see that the smartphone market did more than wake up. RIM’s business grows by more than 100% a year; Apple, while number three worldwide, manages to shake up the industry and to look bigger than it is — or to project an accurate picture of its future, we’ll see; Google announces its Open Source smartphone OS, Android; Microsoft acquires Danger, the maker of an interesting smartphone, the Sidekick, and proclaims its intent to “own” 40% of the market by 2012.

All this, in my view mostly Apple and Android, pushed Symbian to try and regain control of its OS future. To do so, Nokia buys out its partners and becomes the sole owner of Symbian, now called the Symbian Foundation, sounding very non-profit.

Good, you’ll say, they want to be in the driver’s seat (unintended obscure geek pun here…) but why go Open Source then? My guess is that was a condition of buying the partners out. Nokia: You have access to the source code, my dear friends, you have total freedom. My other hunch is that the license won’t be the most constraining of the Open Source variants. By this I mean there is the GPL license that obligates you to share every improvement (or bug) you make and that also forces you to put in the Open Source domain any code that uses, connects to the GPL software you’re enjoying. Everything must become Open Source. Other licensing arrangements let you make contributions to the public Open Source domain but let you keep a wall between your private code and the public one. This, “true” Open Source or not, is the topic of heated arguments hopelessly mixing principle and money. Type “Open Source arguments” in Google for a sample.

I doubt Motorola, Samsung and Sony Ericsson will keep using Symbian Open Source code for long, they’re likely to go to one of several mobile Linux vendors, this is better than developing their own OS code or safer than hoping Nokia will give away improved Symbian code. Just last week, the LIPS, the Linux Phone Standards group decided to merge into the LiMo, Linux Mobile Foundation.

This looks like a smart move by Nokia: Regain control of its OS future, look politically correct and throw its competitors into a jungle of platforms (more than 60 worldwide, I’m told) out there. A beautiful mess, opportunities galore, like microcomputers before Microsoft and Apple made them PC.

Nokia, control like Apple, sound like Google. –JLG

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