This is the next great mobile software battleground, the platform that will enable even the most basic handset or tablet to sport a full range of functionality and applications, via the browser and web standards like HTML5. Firefox Mobile, Google Chrome OS and many others are pursuing this massive potential user and developer base. Nokia could have led that charge and gone a long way to compensating for its missteps in the current wave of smartphones.
It had Trolltech, creator of the Qt cross-platform development platform – one of Nokia‘s most significant ever acquisitions, but its potential subsequently thrown away amid the shift to Windows Phone. It also had Maemo, which got merged into MeeGo and then sidelined into an open source project, and the Tizen initiative (which is spearheaded by Samsung, not Nokia). This was an early example of the new breed of cloud-oriented, slimline Linux OSs. And it also had Meltemi, a project to develop an even slimmer, simpler Linux browser/OS for feature phones, a web-based successor for the Series 40 base.
These technologies could have combined with Nokia's natural strengths in emerging economies, and its close attention to creating local language apps and content suited to those markets – something largely ignored by the traditional smartphone majors like Apple. All that could have ensured that the mass market mobile web experience of the coming years would belong to Nokia, and be defined by it, carving out a new sphere which was not dependent on the successes or failures of its Windows strategy at the high end.
Instead, it has cast aside those jewels and passed the baton to Firefox, Google and others. But there are many other projects in the works, hoping to steal some of the thunder, including some which have emerged from Nokia itself. Last week, we heard about Jolla, a Finnish start-up founded by former Nokia engineers, which is continuing to evolve MeeGo as a mobile OS, separate from the Tizen initiative (which combines MeeGo and another Linux platform, LiMO, and is hosted by Linux International). Jolla has already signed its first sales and distribution contract for handsets running its OS, with Chinese retail chain D.Phone Group.
China is the perfect target, because of its size, its huge demand for affordable devices with a full web experience, and its readiness to accept technologies which differ from the Google/Apple norms of the west.
“China has the largest and most rapidly expanding smartphone market in the world,” Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio said in a statement. “This agreement with D.Phone is a major step in Jolla's journey towards becoming a significant player in the global smartphone market.”
Meanwhile, the team behind Meltemi, which was laid off when Nokia closed its R&D center in Ulm, Germany recently, have now formed a new unit called Kyvyt (Finnish for talent). As always when a huge company makes major cuts, a host of start-ups will arise from the ashes, and Nokia has a scheme called Bridge to provide seed capital for some of those employees it is laying off, if they have a strong start-up idea. This funded Jolla, and redundant staff can pitch for seed capital of €25,000, with up to four ex-employees able to band together to win a potential €100,000.
Enyo and webOS live on
Nokia‘s Linux engineers are not the only ones hoping to fill the gap left by their former employer‘s change of heart. There are still people who believe the former Palm/Hewlett-Packard platform, webOS – another pioneer of the new-style platforms – could be resurrected for the next wave of devices. HP, publicly at least, has shown more interest in its abandoned child than Nokia and, although Google recently hired much of the team behind its webOS application framework, Enyo, HP has continued to develop the product. Enyo 2 has just come out of beta release and is production ready, API-stable and recommended for general use, HP says.
Therefore there may still be a role for Enyo 2, which no longer targets just webOS but has been rewritten from ground up to “enable truly cross-platform development, supporting mobile and desktop browsers from iOS to IE8,” according to HP. Among its features is a large toolset of user interface widgets including Menu, Picker, Tooltip, Tree, Drawer and Scrim.
There is also a layout library to help developers build apps that run across many form factors, and Sampler, a new app to give programmers an easy introduction to the platform. HP is putting in place a new contributor sign-off process to ease acceptance of larger code contributions while still keeping the codebase compatible with the Apache 2.0 free license. "The process was inspired by the Linux Foundation's kernel contribution process and involves a simple sign-off line to be added to pull requests,” HP said.
The beta release of open source webOS is due in August, but elements of the OS, and Enyo, may also turn up in Google‘s own HTML5 browser-based platform Chrome OS, since the search firm hired the team which created Enyo in May. The latest version of Chrome comes with “packaged apps” technology which could lead to a more powerful Chrome OS and web applications.