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Will everyone benefit from Symbian tool's success?

Posted: 24 Oct 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:license? handset?

A move to promote Nokia Corp.'s S60 and the Symbian Ltd OS to the open-source community hit all the right notes at the Smartphone show in London. But is it really a "win" for everyone?

Nokia's pending acquisition of Symbian, along with regulatory approvals and closing clauses, is a big success for the world's largest cellphone maker. It means the Finnish company can increase up the software engineering resources that are critical to its handset business.

But what does it mean to the rest of the industry and for the Symbian Foundation?

What's going to happen to 1,500 Symbian employees? Who goes to Nokia and who will stay at the Symbian Foundation? What development work must be done?

Good move for Symbian
Richard Windsor, research analyst for technology and communication equipment, Nomura International, said building the Foundation will help Symbian itself, and perhaps Symbian's non-Nokia licensees, if things fall in their proper places.

"As what it stands now, the Symbian platform is already fragmented," he said. "It's got one block of code, and three different user interfaces, including S60, UIQ and mobile-oriented applications platform (MOAP)," he added. "Integrating them into a single Symbian OS license would enable licensees to become more involved in the Foundation," he noted.

"At present, non-Nokia licensees such as Sony Ericsson are at a massive disadvantage against Nokia," said Windsor.

"Because of its volume, Nokia can sell its S60-based hardware 40 percent cheaper than anyone else," he added. "This fact alone has discouraged others from jumping on the Symbian bandwagon," he noted.

Nokia's edge
Of the 200 million S60-based mobile handsets sold globally, Nokia claimed it has sold 180 million units. The S60 is written to Nokia's hardware specifications, thus making the S60 community very Nokia-centric.

Windsor said this makes the Symbian Foundation's task of hardware abstraction essential. He added that if hardware abstraction is done correctly and in a timely fashion, then handset vendors other than Nokia could also launch S60-based phones much faster and cheaper.

During a press briefing, the Symbian Foundation announced the nomination of Lee Williams as its executive director. Williams described the development of solid hardware abstraction that permits the use of any application processor as one of the four key focus areas.

"We will focus on it as soon as possible by working with all parties." Williams said but has not given timeline for the development.

Managing headcount
Another query is what will be the fate of the present Symbian employees. "Most of the 1,500 employees will be absorbed by Nokia," said David Wood, executive VP for research, Symbian.

Wood gave three separate paths for the current Symbian workers. First, he said most of them will be working for Nokia. Second, he added that 150 employees or so will be assigned at the Symbian Foundation, basically to look after code.

Third, he noted that 150 to 200 employees, who work as technical support staff for many Symbian OS licensees like Motorola or Sony Ericsson, will have to go outside the Symbian Foundation, explaining that's not what the Foundation is set up to do.

The Foundation's role
Wood said the Foundation is tasked to support software developers, version control and distributions. Any work related to improvements to a specific OEM's device has to be done by each OEM vendor.

The institution also oversees several "Symbian Councils," all consisting of the Symbian Foundation members. To maintain its independence, the Foundation is not allowed to make any revenue from its activities.

As for Wood's role, he said, "I can go to Nokia Research, for example, or other parts of Nokia's business units. There are many options. I am not worried."

Nomura's Windsor isn't bullish about the Symbian Foundation's future. He said having a Nokia employee running the Foundation could raise question within and to the rest of the industry.

But Williams made it clear, in a press briefing, he gave up the equity related to Nokia that may influence his decisions as the Symbian Foundation's leader. He added that many in the industry know him that he has always independently acted regardless a logo or a brand he worked for.

William's leadership
The fact that all Foundation members have agreed to nominate Williams is a good sign, Windsor noted, along with the notion that his term is limited to two years.

A more explosive issue is the threat of further fragmentation of the wireless platform under the Symbian Foundation. "The Symbian Foundation has no regulation that says no to fragment the system," Windsor said.

Members can be influenced by the commercial power to improve development in a certain way and to get it done more quickly than others. "All you need to do is to pay $1,500 to become a member of the Symbian Foundation," said Windsor, to exert influence.

After 2010, when the S60 and the Symbian OS are set free to the open source community, all bets may be off. "It's entirely possible for the platform to further fragment," Windsor said.

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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