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Closing Symbian code won't have much impact

Nokia has closed the source code of the OS, but that won't affect users in rich countries much

Nokia's recent decision to close the source code for its Symbian smartphone OS likely won't affect most application developers or consumers.

For a short period, Nokia put the smartphone operating system in the hands of the Symbian Foundation and opened up its source code, allowing other device vendors to modify it as they developed their own products. But Nokia recently took Symbian back in-house, and last week the company acknowledged that the source code is no longer openly available.

An official March 31 blog entry about Nokia releasing the source code to platform partners caused some confusion because it was entitled, "We are Open!" Critics said under its new licensing scheme, the OS was no longer "open" in the sense of being open source. In another blog entry last week, Nokia clarified that its announcement had meant only that Symbian was "open for business."

"As we have consistently said, Nokia is making the Symbian platform available under an alternative, open and direct model, to enable us to continue working with the remaining Japanese OEMs and the relatively small community of platform development collaborators we are already working with," the April 4 unsigned blog entry read. "Through these pages we are releasing source code to these collaborators, but are not maintaining Symbian as an open source development project."

To use the Symbian source code, platform developers have to register with Nokia and use the Nokia Symbian License. The company said it will continue to offer development tools, documentation and other support to application developers.

The closing of the source code comes as Nokia begins to phase out Symbian, which has powered all its smartphones, in favor of Microsoft's Windows Phone 7. (Nokia feature phones run a separate OS, Nokia Series 40.) When it announced its deal with Microsoft, Nokia said it expected to sell 150 million Symbian devices in the years to come. In the fourth quarter of 2010, it sold 28.3 million of them.

The move was another step in concluding a Nokia initiative that didn't deliver all the benefits the company hoped for, according to analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. While Symbian was made available as open source, a few handset makers, such as Samsung Electronics and Sony Ericsson, took advantage of the OS. But because Nokia was such a dominant maker of Symbian phones, the partner companies were never able to gain enough traction in the market to make it worth their while, Entner said. The situation became even less promising for them when Symbian was leapfrogged by Apple's iPhone, he added.

"Why go through the effort of providing it open source, when nobody's there?" Entner said.

The move may have been aimed at cutting the costs of managing Symbian, though there is a chance Nokia did it because it aims to come out with new features in Symbian that it wants to protect from competitors, said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis.

Though Symbian was the biggest smartphone OS in the world last year, it has been losing ground to rivals and is expected to shed more soon. Last week, research company Gartner said Symbian held 37.2 percent of the smartphone market in 2010 but would fall to 19.2 percent this year and just 5.2 percent in 2012. Android would reach nearly 50 percent of the market by then, Gartner said.

The change in licensing will not have a significant effect on developers of applications that run on Symbian, because they don't need to get into the code or modify it, analysts said. In any case, app developers already have largely been drawn away by other OSes, Greengart said.

"Developers want to make money, and they will write apps for whichever platform allows them the best opportunity to make money. And right now that's iPhone," Greengart said.

Whether the platform is open source or not doesn't really matter to them, Entner said.

"You'd rather have something that's easy to work with, and reliable, and closed, than something that's open, and it's a pain," he said.

In addition, the change won't affect consumers and developers in North America, Entner said. This is both because Symbian has never gained a strong foothold in the region and because consumers' habit of replacing their phones frequently -- about every 21 months, on average -- will wipe Symbian devices off the market more quickly.

However, Symbian is likely to remain in use longer in developing countries where Nokia has a strong foothold, analysts said.

For one thing, the more expensive hardware requirements of Windows Phone 7 will put those devices out of reach for a longer time in these countries. In addition, in India, East Asia and Europe, consumers hold on to phones twice as long or hand them down, Entner said.

Adding in the ability to make less expensive smartphones with Symbian, total shipments may eventually exceed the company's estimate of 150 million, on the strength of sales in developing countries, Entner said. Symbian's promise in these markets extends beyond handsets to apps, he added. "If you are an app developer in India or Indonesia, Symbian is a gold mine."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com


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