The previous post looked at the Nokia acquisition of Symbian from the competitive perspective. Let's now look at the opportunities and challenges for Nokia and the new Symbian Foundation. Remember that assuming successful regulatory approval, there will be no Symbian Ltd. anymore. Nokia will need to manage the challenges that come with any acquisition. When you buy a company, you essentially acquire the assets (in this case the software), the intellectual capital of the employees, and the customers.
This acquisition is particularly interesting as key Symbian Ltd. shareholders and customers have banded together to deliver the primary software assets into a not-for-profit organization. There's a great white paper outlining the initial strategy on the currently minimalist Symbian Foundation site.
- Nokia will acquire the remaining shares of Symbian Ltd. that it doesn't already own.
- Symbian Ltd. employees become Nokia employees.
- Fujitsu, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DOCOMO, and Sony Ericsson (all Symbian Foundation board members with the exception of Fujitsu) will contribute SymbianOS, S60, UIQ, MOAP and related software and documentation assets to the newly formed foundation.
- The initial board directors will be AT&T, LG, Motorola, Nokia, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung Electronics, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone.
- The foundation launches (expected in early 2009) and all the assets will be available to members under a royalty-free license.
- A new platform will be developed from SymbianOS and S60 with selected components of UIQ and MOAP. The first release of the unified Symbian Foundation platform is expected to be available during 2009. The platform will offer the means to build a complete mobile device while providing the tools to differentiate devices through tailoring of the user experience, applications and services.
- The new platform is to be backwards compatible with SymbianOS v9 and S60 3rd Edition.
- Platform assets will be made available as open source gradually over the next 2 years, with the intent to use the Eclipse Public License (EPL) 1.0, making the platform code available to all for free.
Most of this is fantastic news. The economics of code sharing, value preservation of the intellectual asset, and innovation capture will be delivered through the foundation with the primary stakeholders sharing the costs. This is a perfect example of the economics of shared development in this particular market space and "why open source software."
Organization and governance of the new Foundation will be key. The foundation is open to all and membership will cost US$1500. The primary board members will share all the operational costs. This seems a reasonable way to manage the cost — it's likely much cheaper than historical royalty payments and it scales well versus a fixed premium membership fee structure seen in other places. The white paper describes the functioning of the foundation based on the following structure.
As a side observation, it would behoove Intel to get involved early on, conceivably as a primary board member and share the costs. As the mobile world of phones and laptops converge, they should be investing beyond moblin.org. That is NOT to say that the mobile world will be a single class of devices in the future, but rather the space will overlap for some time and I would think Intel would want to participate as widely as possible.
So where are the edges that need to be carefully considered in the new Symbian Foundation?
- While the foundation is open to all, and the list of membership benefits is well defined today (in the white paper), one of the benefits reads: Right to access and modify foundation source code, and contribute code to the foundation. This needs to be rethought along the lines of how the Eclipse Foundation manages committers and contributors. The Symbian Foundation is deliberately cutting off unknown sources of contribution if they make it a membership benefit. There is no loss of control in encouraging (and vetting) contributions from as wide a population as possible. Putting gates around the community early, or discouraging contributors looks arrogant and risks the community's participation and growth at precisely the time when it is most needed. Microsoft certainly demonstrated how fast you could pour cold water on a community with the Rotor project. Motorola had its early Linux community vanish. Heavy-handed control and "we know best" attitudes hampered the early critical growth of the OpenSolaris community. Who knows what sources of innovation will be cut off (and will defect to other projects) with this gate in place.
- "Backwards compatibility" as an absolute goal. This is not a bad thing per se, but it feels like the backwards compatibility requirement exists to deal with a long delivery cycle — essentially asking developers to begin developing today for the open source platform delivery in two years and the promise that the investment will be protected. All complex dynamic software hits a point in its evolution where a re-write is required. (The Linux kernel rewrote the entire VM and scheduler after about 10 years of evolution with modern architectures.) Backwards compatibility becomes the challenge. But the opportunity forward MUST be bigger than the backwards compatibility option. It needs to be managed in the community, i.e. this is a community issue and a delivery time-line issue. Think of the opportunity that Microsoft took moving from the Windows world of the late nineties to the new world enabled by NT. Think of the enormous opportunity Apple took moving from Mac OS9 to Mac OSX. Think of developing a community of innovation forward like the Mozilla world and Eclipse.
- The whole two-year process feels like a traditional corporate engineering culture trying to manage change around a well established product space. This would be great if this was what Symbian Ltd. was to remain (but even then it risks being a dead-end overtaken by other solutions with the coming mobile Internet wave). When IBM began the Eclipse Project, they put safe IP structures around a software base, some simple governance and a road map in place, and got on with the work. Later, the Eclipse Foundation was created as a better way to manage the inbound innovation and growth under a well defined IP regime. Now, the Eclipse Foundation and Mozilla Corp. provide excellent blueprints for what the Symbian Foundation needs to be. Nokia already has the inhouse experience to build from those blueprints. Engineering cultural change is difficult but essential here. While one wouldn't expect Symbian Ltd. to release its core assets while awaiting regulatory approval, there have to be other complementary software assets internally available that could be released as early experiments to begin to get the IT structure in place and begin the cultural learning. Two years gives Android and LiMo and even Windows Mobile too much time to erode a community that should rightly be coming to the Symbian Foundation.
The Symbian Foundation is an opportunity not to simply re-invent the mobile phone platform, but to build the most innovative shared platform forward for the coming mobile Internet. Working with peer organizations like the Eclipse and Mozilla foundations, and arguably the Android project, a stable dynamic open source platform can be created that best suits the needs of customers and consumers for some time to come. Nokia's vision and foresight open up amazing possibilities. Here's wishing them speedy success.