As if "openness" wasn't already the key word of the year for mobile communications, Nokia took the concept a step further Tuesday, announcing plans to create an organization called the Symbian Foundation, which will make the Symbian mobile operating system an open platform, with licenses to be offered royalty-free.
Analysts said the move is a direct threat to the Android mobile platform, which is being developed by the Open Handset Alliance established by Google, and other Linux-based mobile operating systems such as the LiMo Foundation's namesake platform.
Another target will be Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system.
"Microsoft needs to be concerned," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, in an interview. It may be difficult for Microsoft to "continue to justify its relatively high license fees for an OS that competes with a full-featured one offered for free," he said.
Gold said Microsoft probably receives US$10 to $15 per phone that has the Windows Mobile operating system installed.
But Microsoft downplayed the creation of the Symbian Foundation, comparing the open access of Symbian to efforts made by Linux-based operating systems.
"As Nokia releases Symbian to the market and makes it open, it will run into the same challenges as Linux-based systems, including fragmentation," said Scott Rockfeld, group manager of the Windows Mobile communications unit at Microsoft.
Rockfeld said with so many operating systems on the market that are Linux-based or Symbian-based, wireless carriers will tend to differentiate themselves from one another by picking operating systems that are distinct. That will require application developers to build a range of applications, and it will require users to be more concerned about interoperability.
"We've seen a number of Linux mobile consortiums come and go, and there's actually a Linux graveyard," he said.
Rockfeld argued that Windows Mobile offers a consistent experience across 140 types of phones from several manufacturers. He also said the Windows Mobile APIs are open and can be used royalty-free by any developer.
But Gold and other analysts said Rockfeld and Microsoft seem to be missing an important point -- that many users don't care what operating system they are using. IT managers in large companies may care, but the average user does not, he noted. "A good phone is about the user experience, not the OS," Gold said.
Analyst firm ABI Research in New York issued a statement calling the open Symbian movement "a refreshing sign of agility." ABI analyst Kevin Burden said Nokia may try to position the open Symbian platform for mid-priced handhelds.
As part of its announcement, Nokia said it will purchase the remaining shares of Symbian Software that it doesn't already own in the second half of 2008. It currently owns about 48 per cent and will pay about US$410 million for the rest. Nokia will then own all Symbian assets and will transfer them to the Symbian Foundation. Nokia will also transfer intellectual property added by Nokia to Symbian and to the Nokia S60 mobile platform. Gold said membership in the foundation will be open to any interested organization and will have a relatively low fee of US$1,500.