Nokia buys Symbian to give it away

The open source arena opened up wide last week when Nokia made the surprise announcement it will acquire the remaining shares of mobile software licensing company Symbian Limited and team with Sony Ericsson, Motorola and NTT DoCoMo to pool the Symbian OS, S60, UIQ and MOAP technologies to create a single open mobile software platform. The firms will also collaborate with other industry bigwigs to establish the Symbian Foundation, a non-profit initiative dedicated to accelerating the availability of new services and mobile experiences. Nokia said it will contribute all of its shares in Symbian as well as the Symbian and S60 software to the foundation, with Sony Ericsson and Motorola agreeing to hand over UIQ technology and DoCoMo contributing its MOAP assets. Together, these components promise a unified platform with a common UI framework available to all foundation members under a royalty-free license, with the first devices based on the Symbian Foundation code expected to arrive in 2010.

As Nokia pointed out during its press conference, the Symbian move heralds the biggest-ever single release of proprietary code into the open-source wild. The obvious question is why Nokia would make such a bold decision, but while the announcement no doubt dropped a few jaws when it hit the newswires, the more you think about it the more sense it makes. Despite its dominance in the international smartphone market, Nokia has never rested on its laurels, and with good reason: Consider how radically the mobile device business has changed in just the last 12 months. First there was Apple's iPhone, then there was Google's Android, and then Verizon Wireless announced its Open Device Initiative--and don't forget continued strong showings from the Windows Mobile and BlackBerry platforms. Now Nokia controls an open platform that offers something Android can't: An operating system already ingratiated into the wireless ecosystem, free from Google's plans for mobile revenue domination. Giving Symbian away free could turn out to be the most profitable decision Nokia ever made. -Jason