Open season for the Symbian Foundation

There was good news and bad news for the Symbian OS last week. On the positive side of the balance sheet, Nokia announced the completion of its agreement to acquire software licensing firm Symbian Limited, heralding a significant benchmark in the ongoing development of the Symbian Foundation, the non-profit initiative that will oversee the Symbian platform as it evolves into an open-source operating system. The foundation--formed in June by Nokia in collaboration with Sony Ericsson, Motorola NTT DoCoMo to unite the Symbian OS, S60, UIQ and MOAP technologies--also announced the support of AOL, Cell Telecom, Intrinsyc, ISB Corporation, Trusted Logic and Xenient. And in perhaps the most intriguing development of all, AT&T's director of next-generation services Roger Smith took the stage at the Symbian Partner Event in San Francisco to suggest the operator is planning to consolidate the number of mobile platforms it supports, strongly hinting that Java is on its way out. (An AT&T spokesperson later backpedaled on Smith's remarks, however, and promised the carrier will continue carrying Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices.)

Now the bad news: Despite the growing momentum behind Symbian, its longstanding dominance over the smartphone OS market took a punch in the gut when research firm Gartner reported its worldwide market share fell to 49.8 percent in the third quarter, the first time Symbian has dipped below the 50 percent mark. By comparison, just one year ago Symbian commanded 63.1 percent of smartphone OS sales, and Gartner adds it believes the operating system's market share will continue to erode in the year ahead, even if its overall lead remains intact. The biggest threats facing Symbian: BlackBerry occupies second place with market share of 15.9 percent, while Apple's Mac OS X came in third at 12.9 percent, edging past Windows Mobile at 11.1 percent. In North America, where Symbian has historically struggled, BlackBerry and Mac OS X together account for more than 70 percent of the smartphone market.

"Symbian is still in the right place at the right time--it's simply growing at a slower rate than the overall smartphone market," said Lee Williams, the nominated executive director of the Symbian Foundation, in an interview with FierceDeveloper on Thursday. "The [Gartner report] is not a comment about Symbian losing momentum--we've enjoyed a 10-year run of complete dominance. Now there are lot of new entrants, like Research In Motion, Apple and Android. Our focus is on continuing to grow, and to have the most competitive platform, which we're well positioned to do. Right now there are more than 100 Symbian products in development alone."

According to Williams, the Symbian Foundation is targeting late April 2009 to begin operations as a fully functional business entity, and developer members can expect to see a preliminary version of the open software platform in the first half of 2009. Williams said he expects the complete Symbian OS source code will be released under Eclipse Public License sometime in 2010. Among the technical challenges facing the revamped Symbian, Williams said: An improved hardware extraction layer, support for 3D graphics acceleration and web runtime enhancements. "We need to invest there and stay up with the rate of evolution," he added.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing an open-source Symbian is the increasingly competitive mobile software landscape--especially in North America, where Symbian-based smartphones remain the exception and not the rule, why should applications developers shift their energy away from iPhone, Android and WinMo to focus on building Symbian apps? "Symbian developers don't have to wait for a market presence for different form-factor products," Williams said. "Symbian is a complete offering to create most any kind of application. The question I always ask developers about their applications is ‘How big an addressable market do you need, and what kind of timeframe?' We already have that presence." -Jason