When it comes to cell-phone software, open is the new black. In less than two years, no fewer than three coalitions have formed with the intent of building mobile handset operating systems with input from all comers. Suddenly the business of developing mobile software"”once handled by coders working behind closed doors for a single vendor or group"”has gone open source.
To recap, there's the Google-led Open Handset Alliance (BusinessWeek.com, 11/6/07) that draws together dozens of companies to work on an operating system called Android. 'The first truly open and comprehensive platform for mobile devices' is how Andy Rubin, director of mobile platforms at Google (GOOG), described the effort, unveiled in November 2007. Then there's the LiMo Foundation, a coalition formed early last year that's already proved successful in getting the Linux open-source operating system onto mobile phones.
Most recently, cell-phone giant Nokia (NOK) said it's buying the part of the Symbian mobile software effort that it doesn't already own, and creating a foundation that will render Symbian open source (BusinessWeek.com, 6/24/08) and give away its software to device makers.
'A rattly ship'
Now, the question for many in the wireless industry is to what extent the world needs these potentially competing open software efforts and whether there's capacity for them to work together. 'We are all doing the right thing,' Rubin says. 'I don't think there's anything that would preclude us from working together. How we cooperate"”that's the question.' Rubin also says he's willing to host a meeting among 'everybody that's interested.'
Open-source efforts might be able to accomplish a lot more together than they can apart, analysts say. Concerns over the reliability and lack of focus for any one initiative sends some handset makers into the arms of proprietary software makers Microsoft (MSFT), Research In Motion (RIMM), and Apple (AAPL), says Kevin Burden, an analyst at ABI Research. The concern is that open-source initiatives 'are a rattly ship, [where] there's no control over where these platforms are going,' Burden says.
Google's Rubin isn't alone in welcoming a concerted effort. At a recent Tokyo conference, Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford hinted that as closed Symbian gets reborn into the open-source Symbian Foundation, he'd be open to collaborating with Google in some way. Morgan Gillis, executive director of LiMo, says he wouldn't mind working with Android either. 'There's plenty of scope for cooperation,' he says.
Who would merge‾
What would that look like‾ One option is for the Open Handset Alliance to join the new Symbian Foundation and use some Symbian code in its own software. Symbian, in turn, may want to harness Android's user-friendly menus, which could help vendors such as Nokia better compete with Apple's iPhone. Symbian could also benefit from Dalvik, a type of software developed by the Open Handset Alliance that could help the Symbian Foundation replicate Sun Microsystems (JAVA) Java software that it's restricted from using on its own.
Other handset makers may be able to embed Google applications on top of Symbian or LiMo operating systems so that they are the default options on phones right out of the box. That's the case with Samsung's Innov8, introduced July 24.
Jack Gold, president of consulting firm J. Gold Associates, has even speculated that LiMo or Symbian may consider merging with Android.
However, the notion of a merger between Symbian and Android is widely dismissed within Symbian circles. It might be 'more feasible for Android to merge with LiMo than with Symbian, because the technology underpinnings are the same,' Gillis says. He also says the two haven't discussed closer collaboration, much less a merger.
Competition may rule
To be sure, there are plenty of reasons for Android and Symbian Foundation to stay apart. Each was created to forward the interests of big, competing corporations"”Google and Nokia, respectively. 'It is like suggesting that Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) merge,' says Ben Wood, an analyst at the British mobile consulting firm CCS Insight. 'There are clear competitive reasons why Nokia, which owns all the intellectual property and will be the biggest contributor to the [open-source] Symbian Foundation, has no commercial incentive at all to work with Google.'
For its part, Google is pressing ahead with stand-alone Android efforts. Indeed, Android is prepping a major release within a few weeks and will soon announce new Open Handset Alliance members. 'We will continue building and innovating on Android,' says Rubin, who declined to comment on whether Android may merge with another open-source effort.
For now, Microsoft says it's not worried. 'This is really nothing new, we've seen Linux consortiums come and go,' says Scott Rockfeld, group product manager of Windows Mobile. But even a little cooperation could make these recent open efforts more than just some passing fad.
With Jennifer Schenker in Paris
Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.
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