Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Nokia's new subsidiary

Largely lost in the announcements at Nokia World is this press release

Nokia acquires Symbian Limited
December 02, 2008

Espoo, Finland - Nokia today announced that it has completed its offer to acquire Symbian Limited. All conditions to Nokia's offer to acquire Symbian Limited have been satisfied and it has received valid acceptance of greater than 99.9% of the total Symbian shares that Nokia did not already own. Symbian is the software company that develops and licenses Symbian OS, the market-leading open operating system for mobile devices.

The closing of the offer is a fundamental step in the establishment of the Symbian Foundation, announced on June 24, 2008 by Nokia, together with AT&T, LG Electronics, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, ST-NXP Wireless, Texas Instruments and Vodafone. More information about the planned foundation can be found at www.symbianfoundation.org.

All Symbian employees are planned to become Nokia employees on February 1, 2009.
After 10 years, Symbian is gone as an independent company. Although the acquisition marks an important milestone to the plan announced June 24, the more important milestone will be (as noted) when the employees get all shuffled around and dispersed to Nokia divisions after Feb. 1. The bulk of today’s Symbian Ltd. — software engineers and associated QA and management — will presumably end up somewhere within handset R&D.

One major unknown (and for now unknowable) is how loyal Symbian handset makers (beyond Nokia) remain. Nokia’s always had a difficult time balancing its internal goals against attracting competitors to share an ecosystem. There have also been a series of one-off problems that seemed to jinx the other participants: Motorola’s ongoing saga, Sony Ericsson’s withdrawal from much of the world, and the emphasis of the Korean vendors on cool hardware rather than usable software.

Something that will be resolved sooner is the nature of the Symbian Foundation. The most successful multi-firm open source consortium is the Eclipse Foundation, which lists 17 names on its staff page. By my guess, this is a small fraction of those portion of Symbian employees that today work with the Symbian ecosystem — the “few hundreds” mentioned in a June interview.

Presumably the goal of the foundation (as with any consortium) is to be supported by a broad base of members rather than getting most of its money from one or two highly motivated members. Nokia will pay for a thousand employees (in R&D) but will its partners (with their smaller smartphone sales) pay for hundreds of foundation employees?

At Nokia World, Symbian Foundation executive director (designate) Lee Williams gave one of the keynotes. Williams was the obvious candidate, as a member of the (former) Symbian board and the outgoing head of Nokia’s S60 software development (a distinction that will go away once S60 and Symbian are merged). He also had experience as a manager at Be Inc. (the Apple spinoff) before and after it was acquired by Palm.

Alas, the first 15 minutes of the talk is exceedingly platitudinous, as executives seem wont to do with a large captive audience.

The useful part of the talk is the last eight minutes, beginning with the phrase "In terms of the goals of the foundation at a very concrete and practical level …” The basic message (in R&D speak rather then MBA speak) is that Symbian OS will leverage its economies of scale and scope to maintain its lead over all rivals. He emphasized three major goals
  • A complete platform in 2009, and with it a more compete platform — in terms of devices, third party applications and platform maturity — than any rival.
  • Hardware agnostic. 7 chipsets, 5 baseband modems, plus other chipsets and components
  • “A real ecosystem” of a wide range of firms, small and large, with no one party advantaged
Obviously paying the Symbian engineers to keep updating the OS will work as long as Nokia pays the bills, and there should be some great improvements of efficiency and effectiveness after Nokia removes the Symbian/S60 schism.

The long term question is outside participation and financial support for the Foundation outside Espoo. In theory, open source should attract third party participation but in practice it rarely works that way: when a single firm sponsors an open source community, usually other firms choose not to participate due to a lack of accessibility. The IP may be open but the production and/or governance are not.

IBM gained outside supporters when it created Eclipse it created the open source Eclipse Project, but today that remains unique. Symbian was already fairly open — certainly as open as many standard consortia — and for now it’s not clear whether Nokia owned (with a smaller open source foundation) will be more open (in governance) than the previous arrangement.

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