When the Symbian Foundation announced the opening up of its namesake smartphone platform on Thursday, it caused a major shift not just in the mobile landscape but also in the FOSS world.
Announced by Nokia back in 2008, the transition of the leading platform from proprietary code to open source was completed four months ahead of schedule and is the largest in software history, the foundation said.
“The development community is now empowered to shape the future of the mobile industry, and rapid innovation on a global scale will be the result,” said Lee Williams, the Symbian Foundation’s executive director.
What the precise effects will be remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt the competitive landscape is significantly altered as a result.
Slipping Market Share
Until Thursday, Google’s Android was the highest-profile open source contender in the smartphone arena. Though Nokia’s Symbian currently dominates the global smartphone market, it’s expected to lose market share to Android in the coming years.
Symbian enjoyed a 49.3 share of the worldwide smartphone platform market at the start of 2009, but that will fall closer to 39 percent by the end of 2012, Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney projected late last year.
Android, meanwhile, will grow to 14.5 percent, giving it the second-place position, according to Gartner.
‘Just to Survive’
“Symbian has a large following in Asia and Europe, but it’s not seen as the future,” Allen Nogee, principal analyst with In-Stat, told LinuxInsider.
“Sure, Nokia could spend large amounts of money to revamp it, but will they?” Nogee asked. “Symbian went open source because they had to just to survive.”
While the platform will “be around for a long time, the most advanced phones won’t be Symbian,” he predicted. “Google is not very worried, I’m sure.”
‘Drowned Out’ by Android and Chrome
The move is significant for smartphones, and it should help the Symbian platform to some extent, said Jay Lyman, analyst for enterprise software with the 451 Group.
“I also think Symbian is being drowned out by all the buzz about Android and also Chrome,” Lyman told LinuxInsider.
Indeed, the shift to open source will at best “help Nokia and Symbian get back on track,” added Chris Hazelton, the 451 Group’s research director for mobile and wireless.
‘All About Developers’
“It’s all about developers, and maintaining some of that developer share,” Lyman explained. “All smartphones rely on having a vibrant developer community that’s ready to create the ecosystem.”
Facing competition from Android and other competitors, Nokia evidently realized that opening up the platform was a way “to keep from losing developers and maybe partners and vendors” to other platforms, he added.
Symbian has “some catching up to do,” agreed Neil Strother, practice director for mobile marketing strategies at ABI Research. “It will be interesting to see if the open platform is enough to stimulate developers and manufacturers besides Nokia.”
Nokia’s recent decision to offer a free turn-by-turn navigation service was another effort to stay competitive with Android, Hazelton pointed out.
However, Symbian’s new openness is unlikely to result in major shifts of allegiances in the smartphone space competition, suggested Lyman.
“I don’t think Symbian will gain many additional handset vendors” as a result of opening up, he said; on the other hand, “they don’t really need to, because they have Nokia.”
With the recent announcement of Apple’s iPad tablet device, of course, there’s a whole other dimension to the mobile space that could now be affected.
Nokia already has tablet offerings — including the N900 — but they’re based on Maemo, Hazelton pointed out.
While Nokia may push further into the market, it won’t be with Symbian — rather, it will continue with Maemo, he predicted.
There have been rumors of a Symbian tablet in the works, Nogee pointed out.
Nevertheless, he said, “we are still waiting.”
‘A New and Major Wave’
Either way, however, “this is the beginning of a new and major wave in the transformation in wireless,” telecom analyst Jeff Kagan told LinuxInsider.
It’s become clear that smartphones are “the path of wireless going forward,” Kagan asserted. “If that is the case, it would be unreasonable to expect a limited approach.”
Comparing the process to a funnel, he explained that “right now we are at the large and wide open top. During the next several years, we will see many versions. Eventually we will come out the narrow spout with a few major competitors.”
As we saw with the TiVo having all the code in the world won’t help if the hardware to run it on won’t allow it. So I would say whether this has any effect or not will depend on whether the hardware manufacturers that use Symbian OS allow their hardware to be accessible or not.