Is the Symbian Foundation DOA?

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 11, 2009

When Nokia announced that it was launching the Symbian Foundation to great fanfare, it had within its grasp that rarest of opportunities to move swiftly and become the dominant open source mobile platform. Alas, just one and a half years later, they have seemingly ceded that position to Android. Instead of recognizing the threat from Android and making strategic changes to counter, they instead criticized Google's closed-door development of Android before releasing a line of code themselves. When criticizing competitors, it helps to have your own house in order first.

In October, the Symbian Foundation released the Symbian kernel sources to the world, and the rest of the world (read: developers) collectively responded, "Great. Where's my Android phone?" I've often lauded Google for its ability to fuse the marketing, PR and developer benefits of open source projects into one seamless operation. It would seem that Symbian could stand to learn a few things. The question is, is it too late?

It might seem odd to ask that question about a platform that currently leads in market share (as of this writing, about 50%). And yet, there is a serious issue with momentum. On the whole, Symbian has rapidly lost market share to the iPhone and Blackberry, and while it's too early to tell, one suspects that the Droid and other Android-based phones, will take a further cut. Then, to rub salt in the wound, Nokia, the long-time Symbian supporter, came out with the N900 tablet and smart phone based on Maemo, which runs on Linux.

There are a couple of problems with the foundation's approach, beginning with its pace of development. They're just moving too slow, period. They act like they're not facing fierce competition. In addition to that, there's also the matter of how they structure their membership. Currently, device manufacturers pay the foundation for the privilege of membership, which I suppose entails the ability to influence the development of Symbian, but one has to wonder if members will think they're getting their money's worth. After all, they don't have to pay Google a dime to be on a foundation, and in the cutthroat world of devices, I can't see any cost going unnoticed. 

And finally, I'll get to what I'll call, oh just to pick a name at random, John Mark's hypothesis of openness. Recognizing that there's a wide spectrum of openness with respect to technology players, there is no absolute degree of openness that companies must attain to gain market share. They only need to be open enough in the context of their respective market. So, in a market where other companies have the momentum and the foundation is behind the eight ball to arrest that activity, they need to up the ante somehow, whether it's via new devices, new software, or a new way to attract developers.

In my hypothesis, given that the other things are mostly equal, the foundation will need to up the openness ante. The iPhone killed because it was both a market-defining product and more open than anything prior. The Andoid went further on the openness scale and is now reaping benefits. Now how about the foundation? They have correctly deduced that Android's development isn't very open, but they have to follow that up with some trend-setting moves of their own.

Fortunately for them, they don't need to look very far - Nokia's open source Maemo platform shows how to attract developers to a mobile platform, but even that could stand some improvement. I wonder if the Symbian Foundation will follow their sister company's lead - given the current market conditions, I would say that they should. Perhaps it's time for a market-defining open source on mobile forge - no one seems to have pulled that off... yet.