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July 17, 2008

An inside (personal) view of the Symbian deal

ESPOO, Finland – We asked a colleague, Janne Jalkanen, about the Symbian deal. He not only has experience with the inner workings of S60 in Nokia, but he was the creator of JSPwiki, a popular open source Java-based wiki sofware.

Janne gave us an earful. This deal has far reaching ramifications at Symbian, for Symbian developers, for Nokia, and for the departments at Nokia who create Symbian software. It is no surprise that when asked, he gave a long answer.

Keep in mind that this is the opinion of an employee, not necessarily the position of the company, nor the full story. It’s just Janne’s impression.

Read on for more.

Janne starts by pointing out one key aspect of Symbian: that people develop for it because they have to, not because they want to (echoing Mike Rowehl’s comments). Also, the feeling is that Nokia does the bulk of the work on Symbian anyway (also exemplified by ownership and number of devices).

“So, Nokia buys Symbian, and donates all the code for Symbian and S60 to Symbian Foundation to open source it. It makes sense to me. S60 is costing us a load of money, since we have to essentially carry it on our own shoulders. Pretty much the only community around S60 is the community we pay to be there (a few lone, strong, awesome warriors notwithstanding).”

And even though Symbian is now going open source, Janne notes that it is not enough to change the way it is being developed.

“I doubt that open sourcing Symbian is going to help in the community building though. There are two kinds of OSS developers: the guys who do things for fun, and the guys who do OSS because they are paid to do so. In order for an open source project to really flourish and take over the world, you need both.

“The problem with Symbian is that very, very few people touch it for fun. So I believe that while we can open source it, it is going to be very difficult to get people participate out of their own free will, unless we are prepared to make very serious refactorings to the entire system.

“Still, it is going to keep Symbian in the game a little longer. While many people dislike it (just go to any Finnish IT newspaper discussion board to verify this), the fact is that it does carry a significant amount of gold home every day. So we must be doing something right, and my bank account would very much like to us keep doing that.”

Janne is ambivalent, but hopes that, in the spirit of open source, more eyes looking at the Symbian code might indeed bring it around.

“Spreading the manure out in the field where everyone can step on it does not necessarily make it better than keeping it in your closet. It does, however, make new things grow better.

“Still, I think this is a smart move. Open source improves quality by using the embarrassment factor. People suddenly sharpen up in their coding when they know their work could be inspected potentially by millions of people – even if nobody ever bothers to do so. And that, while it sounds insignificant, does actually go a long way.”

Janne also makes a good point that it might not be about a tussle by the big guys.

“This move is also going to rekindle some interest from commercial companies. Linux has squeezed out all of the minor players out of the market, but has left the big OS providers like Apple and Microsoft relatively unscathed. It is the second and third-level tiers who really have to worry. Nokia has, through our S30/S40 lines, the ability to withstand the onslaught of new players for quite a while, and still keep making money. The open source Symbian is going to make it more interesting for the third parties to use, too (since many times these decisions are made on political basis, not technical).”

And, of course, by getting other players to contribute more, Nokia can focus on what they do best.

“It also suits well with our Qt and chips strategy. By making Symbian open source, we make ourselves less dependent on it, which means that we can continue building value in the upper layers instead of the plumbing. There isn’t much money in the infrastructure for us; and if Symbian and S60 are open source, we could “easily” just start buying the core operating system from multiple vendors, just like we’re doing with chipsets these days. It would enforce good, stable APIs and save us, and, in the end, our customers, some of that hard-earned cash.”

And, finally, for a person who has been living and breathing open source development for a very long time:

“It is interesting to see how open source has really become a business strategy instead of an ideology.”

Janne’s views are his, not necessarily Nokia’s (that’s a disclaimer, by the way). We just found his views to be an interesting inside perspective. From what we’ve heard, folks are feeling that this is a good move, will improve the code base, and make it easier for Nokia to develop Symbian devices.

At a minimum, as Janne says, that’ll save customers some money.

Image from AlphaTangoBravo / Adam Baker