Opening up Symbian – Good or Bad for Linux?
Published 10:47, 24 June 08
I'm not sure whether this is good news or bad news for Linux, but it's certainly big news:
Nokia today announced it has launched a cash offer to acquire all of the shares of Symbian Limited that Nokia does not already own, at a price of EUR 3.647 per share. The net cash outlay from Nokia to purchase the approximately 52% of Symbian Limited shares it does not already own will be approximately EUR 264 million.
The acquisition is a fundamental step in the establishment of the Symbian Foundation, announced today by Nokia, together with AT&T, LG Electronics, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone. More information about the planned foundation can be found at www.symbianfoundation.org.
And that site has this interesting piece of information:
The Symbian Foundation platform will be available to members under a royalty-free license from this non-profit foundation. The Symbian Foundation will provide, manage and unify the platform for its members. Also, it will commit to moving the platform to open source during the next two years, with the intent to use the Eclipse Public License. This will make the platform code available to all for free, bringing additional innovation to the platform and engaging even a broader community in future developments.
Let's unpick that a little.
The Symbian operating system has its roots in an earlier offering called EPOC, produced by one of the stars of the British computing world (not that there are many): Psion. Psion is best known for two things: its hugely-popular Psion Organiser series, and the fact that it wrote the main office applications for the Sinclair QL - the machine that got a certain Linus Torvalds interested in the concept of multitasking, which in turn led to the creation of the Linux kernel.
Symbian has become one of the main operating systems for mobile phones, but until now, has not been open source. Nokia's announcement that it will be releasing it under the Eclipse licence is significant, but not one that is unalloyed good news for open source.
The move is clearly aimed at removing one of the main advantages of Google's Android platform: that it was mostly open source. Now that Symbian goes even further in the direction of openness, some of the attraction of Android will be lost. Moreover, Symbian has ten years of work behind it, is very well known, and is already widely used – none of which is true for Android.
But Android's loss is also Linux's loss, since Android uses the latter as its foundation. One effect of Symbian going open source is that it is likely to divert mobile developers from writing on Linux, weakening it in the mobile space. Indeed, splitting developer interest between two open source platforms may have the paradoxical effect of boosting Windows Mobile.
On the other hand, it could be argued that having two open source mobile platforms will ensure that there is some healthy competition between their respective developers – just as there is between GNOME and KDE. And while many bemoan the fact that the existence of two desktop environments also splits developer activity, it's certainly consistent with the idea that free software is about having a choice.
Finally, Nokia's move to open source Symbian raises the issue of its 2005 agreement to use Microsoft's DRM technology on its handsets. Marrying open source Symbian with Microsoft's DRM locks seems an unlikely combination, so maybe there's hope that Nokia has seen the light not only on the power of open source, but on the pointlessness of DRM too.