How many mobile device manufacturers does it take to keep the most successful handset operating system alive? If you guessed "one," you're right. If you guessed "five," you're right. If you're confused, you're in good company.
Nokia recently acquired Symbian Limited, the developer of the Symbian mobile OS licensed by Nokia, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson and used as a system software component in their mobile platforms. Perhaps it's just me, but I find this story remarkable on many levels. Knowing no more than the single fact I've presented, it might appear that Nokia, which already held a controlling interest in Symbian, is moving to pull the rug out from under its competitors. It turns out that Nokia's not the latest antitrust bad boy. Put a cape on Nokia, because it is a champion of corporate trust, or whatever anti-antitrust works out to be. Symbian Limited's engineers will wear Nokia badges, but every line of code they crank out will be turned over to Nokia’s competitors, and later, to the world.
Nokia will bring Symbian's development operations in-house, but Nokia won't own Symbian's intellectual property. With the purchase, Nokia simultaneously established the nonprofit Symbian Foundation, whose members include five Symbian licensees as well as a trio of major wireless carriers (NTT DoCoMo, Vodafone, and AT&T) and a pair of embedded semiconductor manufacturers (TI and STMicro). The Foundation effectively owns Symbian OS.
If the Symbian Foundation membership seems an odd assortment, consider this: If Foundation members could agree on a set of objectives, it might be able to drive a new device from concept to wireless network deployment in a fraction of the time it takes today. Just eliminating the duplicated effort that each handset maker wastes in homebrew workarounds for issues that are fixed in later revisions of the Symbian OS would be a huge shared win. Having all of the vendors tap the same code spigot at the same time would make patches easier to distribute and, dare I imagine it, make it possible to write applications to Symbian OS that run on multiple brands of phones. That's pretty much the message of the PR accompanying Nokia's announcement.
Nokia bought Symbian with the stated long-term intention of giving the OS away as proper open source, a detail that has drawn the focus of observers who see the Symbian Foundation as a bulwark against Google's Open Handset Alliance. My own knee-jerk response was to view the Foundation as a circling of wagons against iPhone. The timing of the announcement, about two weeks before iPhone 3G's availability, strains coincidence. Whatever the perceived external challenge, the Symbian licensees felt compelled to come together to do something that they couldn't achieve separately. I wonder if Symbian OS was about to hit a wall that could only be avoided if the strongest engineering force among the Symbian Five took over development.