Open Source Symbian and the Inescapable Truth of Product Lifecycles

By Jason Whitmire, general manager of device software optimisation company, Wind River’s mobile business

The announcement one year ago that Symbian will be open sourced under a license free platform in the first half of 2010 was heard around the world. If we are to believe game theory, the motivations behind this move are not a non-zero sum game but rather one of rational choice by its major stakeholders. But what does Open Source Symbian really mean for all of the players involved? Recent press commentary on the announcement might suggest that the leading ascendant contenders for the unifying Open Source platform – Android, Moblin, and LiMo – will somehow be cannibalized by a resurgent Symbian platform that is ‘free’.

Indeed, in the mobile industry, invariably, there is always that big announcement that gains mindshare from industry pundits who can see the future (I recall WCDMA handset launches enjoyed similar attention in 2000). However I believe the opposite is true in the case of Symbian, that its demise as it nears an end to a natural product lifecycle will only be accelerated when it is made available under an open source license next year.

Here are seven reasons why I believe this to be the case:

(1) Shifting of costs to device makers: A recent tour of OxMs in Japan pointed to the possibility that, although Symbian will not charge royalties per unit, development, support, upgrade, and maintenance costs in the Symbian program will likely be shifted to each respective manufacturer as the Symbian Foundation finds that funding a staff of hundreds of Symbian engineers is unlikely to be offset by membership fees. Indeed, by all indications an Open Source Symbian will require considerably more sweat equity and costly out-sourcing by OxMs to keep the platform viable in the face of accelerated competition and technology change. This means that droves of device makers depending on Symbian today will either need to pay more to play or consider investment in alternative open source stacks. Importantly these costs are not variable license fees but hard and fast personnel costs that are independent of shipped volumes.
(2) Developers are flocking elsewhere: Although the best of its generation, developers still generally consider Symbian an inherently buggy software, and there is no reason to believe that this will change with an open source release of the platform. Indeed, with the recognized limitations in the Symbian OS, developers are choosing other open source platforms three times as often. Ultimately, Symbian must be able to attract more developers via a new open platform or it will continue to dramatically lag communities like Linux, Apple, and RIM. This dilemma may be even more important for the Symbian Foundation to solve – there are many competitors luring (and funding) developers to new mobile platforms, and innovation driving differentiation is the key to an operator’s embrace.

(3) No signs of a future proof architecture: If we move beyond smartphones, Symbian simply is not architected for next generation larger screen mobile devices and runs neither easier nor more cheaply. To make matters more complicated, Symbian will attempt combine MOAP, S60 and UIQ to create an all in one platform based on old foundational technology, whereas true open source platforms were architected as service delivery platforms from the start. Indeed, bridging the gap between Symbian today and Symbian tomorrow will require the kind of careful architectural planning that is rare in a new open source consortium that is based on a fundamentally non-open platform, and mitigating the risk of migrating to a platform that substantially contains legacy code while hopefully enabling new services is anyone’s guess. Any claim to the contrary is pure Symbian Foundation defensive marketing fluff.

(4) Symbian is on a decreasing volume precipice. Although Open Source volumes are significantly smaller than that of Symbian, the unit shipment momentum around foundational Linux platforms appears to be the bane of Symbian. In addition to reporting a 12% year on year decrease in volumes in the quarter the Symbian Foundation was established, Symbian now shows a whopping 15 percentage points of lost market share versus other high end OSs. This is strongly reminiscent of Microsoft’s recent announcement that Microsoft expects fewer Windows Mobile-powered handsets. I am not suggesting ‘game over’ for Symbian, which is still the market share leader, but these are indicative numbers. Added to the dip in shipment growth, turnover has been falling rapidly and I believe the highly competitive market will make it more difficult for Symbian’s owner to indefinitely subsidize the Symbian Foundation for other manufacturing players who will have access to source code under a zero royalty license.

(5) Barriers to Symbian roadmap assurance for all members: it remains to be seen if the Symbian Foundation platform will offer a roadmap that allows for continued feature convergence, service delivery, innovation, and differentiation. Indeed, the cost of keeping a stack and platform current with ever-changing technology standards is immense, and it is unclear who will invest in this process in the Open Source Symbian platform. At the same time, the question of who ultimately will control the Symbian roadmap – with one owner essentially contributing most of the engineers to the new Foundation – is a valid one that underscores the fact that this Tier 0 ships circa 70% of Symbian phones. This could result in a Microsoft mobile philosophy of ‘you get what we ship you’ and translate into limited manoeuvring room for customisation and differentiation for the rest of the crowd.

(6) How long will Helsinki hang on to Symbian? Rumours that Qt technology from the Trolltech acquisition is being architected in as part of a post-Symbian new platform generation (with Maemo as the testing vehicle which gave the company its first grounding in Linux) are likely far fetched, especially given the enormous new role Ovi and other initiatives will play in any future software architecture. Yet the fact that technology from the former Trolltech was excluded from the Symbian Foundation might suggest that Symbian is not the future software platform to solve the truly hard problems, and that value creation is going on somewhere else in Helsinki. Indeed, a roadmap where the S40 platform (proprietary technology) serves the feature phone market (with advanced features creeping down into devices such as the 6260 Slide) and where current generation smartphone software (Symbian) is replaced by a next generation is almost certainly in the works.

(7) The devil in the Symbian Foundation governance details: Finally, there remain a thicket of open questions around the operation of the Symbian Foundation and open source, not the least of which is what the exact support burden manufacturers will need to take on in both creating new designs and supporting legacy platforms using Symbian. Also, questions such as how will co-development take place when most Symbian engineers belong to one owner will likely accelerate manufacturing gravitation to alternative open source platforms. Also, as indicated above, questions about how to align on a common Symbian roadmap in the brave new world of Open Source, who ultimately owns contributed intellectual property, how will code be contributed, and who manages Open Source governance on behalf of the device maker are ones that device makers are keenly waiting to be answered.

While I applaud the continued commitment to the open source movement, it is obvious that the pressure from the success of other proprietary handsets from Apple and RIM and open source models like OHA ‘s Android platform, Moblin and LiMo must weigh significantly to have a market leader turn its leading software product over to an open community. Contrary to the Symbian Foundation’s marketing campaign, however, I for one, do not think that the open sourcing of Symbian will encourage increased adoption of the platform as customers and partners seek out fresh options for differentiation and support. If history is a guide, I am betting that the market will migrate to new, sooner rather than later.