Symbian Foundation

symbian.gifWhile it’s easy to speculate on why Nokia, Symbian and it’s shareholders have done this (my original Symbian 10 Years Old post three weeks ago gives some thoughts), I thought so many people will be talking about this that I’d instead talk more about what it probably means for developers and those considering the platform.

The white paper gives some insights.

"On launch of the foundation, which is expected in the first half of 2009, all contributed assets will be available under the foundation’s royalty-free license."

The contributed assets include Symbian OS, S60, UIQ and MOAP. While we are told "membership is not required to develop services and applications on the platform.", membership costs $1500 and allows full access to the platform code. It may be that non-members will only have access to the current ‘public’ APIs. However, $1500 is much better than the current exhorbitant sums currently required to partner with Symbian and Nokia to gain access to some obscure API. Let’s hope it’s even better than this and anyone can view the platform code.

Full access to the platform code allows for much more innovative applications using facilities that are currently hidden. Also, as Symbian isn’t that easy to code, a wealth of new example code would help take-up of the platform.

"A new platform is then to be formed from Symbian OS and S60 with selected UIQ and MOAP(S) technologies integrated."

I have previously commented on how too much has gone into S60 and not put back into Symbian. This has made Symbian OS less viable to handset OEMs as a complete OS. The formation of a new platform from existing assets solves this problem.

"The platform will offer the means to build a complete mobile device while providing the tools to differentiate devices through tailoring of the user experience, applications and services."

It’s clear that in ‘giving away’ the platform, Nokia and Symbian now see licensing the OS as a dead end. We have already seen that Nokia’s new assets will move from being the OS to new services that sit on the OS.

What about compatibility and existing applications?

"The Symbian Foundation platform will offer both exciting possibilities for the future but also compatibility with the past – to Symbian OS v9 and S60 3rd edition. This secures existing investments in the platform, in services and in applications. Furthermore, the platform will have one UI framework, ensuring the compatibility of services and applications. Backward compatibility also means you can start developing today for the future using the tools available today – many available free – and reach a huge existing market with compatibility guaranteed for the future."

This seems to be a big promise. However, it doesn’t explain whether this is source code, binary or application compatibility. It doesn’t clarify if S60 and UIQ will move to the new UI. The response from the UIQ licensees at today’s announcement suggests that these things haven’t been fully thought through yet. They are "Currently evaluating how UIQ fits into the new Symbian Foundation ecosystem".

In practice, I suspect this will mean that Nokia/Samsung and Motorola/Sony Ericsson will continue with their own existing UIs (S60 and UIQ) for some time yet. Why? Changing to the new UI would break existing applications – not only 3rd party but also those internal to phones. Changing all these applications would be a huge undertaking. I think the new UI will mainly encourage new handset OEMs so they can create phones without the S60 and UIQ look and feel. There’s almost certainly not going to be a way to get existing S60 applications automatically working on a new UI with no changes required by the developer – unless, of course, the new UI is just an evolution of the S60 UI.

What about fragmentation and compatibility between future Symbian Foundation implementations?

"The foundation’s brand will identify products based on the Symbian Foundation platform. The brand will only be available for use if a product shipped is compatible with foundation’s platform. A suite of tools for testing compatibility will be provided by the foundation."

This will be a tricky area for the new foundation. They will need to allow members to modify and innovate on the platform without breaking any tests. There will obviously have to be some boundaries as to what can’t be changed. Where they draw the line will be a delicate and possibly contentious balance.

UPDATE: With Sweden’s UIQ Mulls More Than Halving Staff On Symbian News, it seems that UIQ is left searching for a raison d’être.

UPDATE2: Talking to several people and UIQ’s announcement (above), the meaning of "the platform will have one UI framework" and "selected UIQ and MOAP(S) technologies" probably means the framework will indeed be S60 itself and other OEMs will be expected to accept the S60 look an feel.

UPDATE3: In an interview with Ari Jaaksi, Nokia’s director of open source…

"Our goal is to have the same UI on both Linux and Symbian, and the Qt platform lets us move forward toward that, with its cross platform technology."

"The UIQ is very advanced, offering features like touch optimization, so the UI may be more like that going forward. Our immediate goal is to get the UIs closer to each other. They won’t be the same on day one, but now we can start."

So we may yet have a new UI. I don’t think even Nokia (or Symbian) knows yet. It’s the usual case of the managers making promises before the technical people have really thought things through.