Symbian goes open source after Nokia buy-out

The leading smartphone operating system, Symbian, is to become open source, under guidance from a newly set up Symbian Foundation.

Nokia is buying up other vendors' Symbian shares for $409 million (£204 million), and then - apparently - donating the company to the Foundation.

The Symbian Foundation will start work in 2009, and will unify the major Symbian user interface, Nokia's S60, with the other flavours, UIQ and Docomo's MOAP(S) to create a platform that will be available royalty-free, and will be fully open source in two years, using the Eclipse public licence. Membership of the Foundation group will cost $1,500.

The move is intended to accelerate Symbian's goal to get Symbian on to a wider range of phones, for which it has been accepting a steadily reducing royalty. In the first quarter of this year, while keeping a market share above 60 percent, Symbian's shipments went down. The company faces strong competition from the Windows Mobile platform and now Apple's iPhone, and growing threats from open source platforms.

"This is clearly a response to Google's Android and Limo as well as from the iPhone," said Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. Although the free Symbian project will not start till 2009, it should beat the Google-backed Android phone, and provide a royalty-free phone that will build on a large existing installed base. Symbian has been publicly sceptical about Android

The role of the Symbian company in the new Foundation is not clear, but it is understood that, having bought up the remaining 52 percent of Symbian that it does not own, Nokia will donate it to the Symbian Foundation. Nokia has made an offer of $410 million for the 48 percent of Symbian that is owned by Ericsson, Sony Ericsson, Matsushita, Panasonic and Siemens.

Nokia is doing this because, along with other Symbian handset makers, the company has seen that in its current status Symbian will lose against the other competitors, said Bubley. The move could also give it an entry into the US market where Symbian has struggled, he said. One prominent backer on the Foundation web site is AT&T.

Four years ago, Nokia made a bid to own Symbian after Motorola pulled out of the company, but the move was unpopular, and was prevented by Ericsson. This time round, the company is not making the same mistake and is handing the operating system over to become free and open source.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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