Symbian Foundation faces up to challenges

Members discussed their concerns about the future success of the foundation

What was billed as a roundtable discussion for members of the new Symbian Foundation turned into an opportunity for them to lay out the challenges and threats to their fledgling group.

Speaking at the CTIA conference in Las Vegas on Wednesday, the members expressed their support for the foundation but also revealed concerns about how it will work and how successful it will be at garnering wide support. The Symbian Foundation will soon release its first batch of source code as it transitions to an open-source mobile platform.

One of the most important issues raised was how to attract and encourage developers, since the foundation will face strong competition from popular platforms including the iPhone, the BlackBerry and Android.

The foundation doesn't intend to create its own applications store, but it will support phone makers and other members who want to set up their own, said Lee Williams, the Symbian Foundation's executive director. And it will have a process for certifying applications, similar to the former Symbian Signed program, ensuring they'll work on Symbian devices, Williams said.

Individual members may also have their own programs for developers. Nokia, for example, is rolling out an application store and a process for developers to build programs and sell them there.

Applications created through that process will be designed to work across Nokia devices, but they won't necessarily be Symbian specific, said Oren Levine, head of innovation platform marketing, devices R&D for Nokia.

Asked if he thought there could be a conflict between Symbian's efforts to build developer relations and those of member organizations like Nokia, Levine said he did not know, reflecting the uncertainty companies have around supporting Symbian while at the same time promoting their own platforms.

It's possible the types of developers who will be attracted to the Symbian program and those who will develop for Nokia's Ovi platform will be interested in different types of applications.

The Symbian developers may focus primarily on low-level innovation, Levine said. If so, they would work on decidedly less "sexy" applications then those that create buzz in the iPhone App Store, but are important nonetheless. They could work on ways to significantly increase battery life, for example.

"There's a lot of focus on application development in games and apps that make 'body noises,' but there's a whole world of developers doing enterprise apps, communications, security apps and extending the capabilities of what a mobile phone can do. When you're talking about that, you need access to the guts," Levine said.

Because Symbian will be fully open source, developers will be able to access all of the code. Nokia's developer process will likely be focused on higher level functionality, like producing multimedia applications, for example.

The foundation acknowledged that it will have to work to compete for developers with the likes of Apple.

The fact that Symbian will be open source is likely to attract a set of developers who appreciate being able to see all of the code in order to better understand it, and who appreciate having a process for contributing to a bug database and getting feedback, said Ian Skerrett, director of marketing for the Eclipse Foundation. By contrast, iPhone developers have access to very minimal phone functionality.

The foundation should make it clear to developers how they can benefit from building applications for Symbian, said Steve Glagow, vice president of marketing operations for Orange.

The iPhone has been successful in part because it is one device, it's relatively easy to write applications for and applications get good exposure through the iTunes store.

"You'll really confuse matters when you say you'll emulate that with something as complex as Symbian," he said. "So you have to make it simple and tell (developers) which devices are out there and in what quantity."

That way they'll be able to target their applications to devices where they believe they can make the most money.

That presents a problem for Symbian in the U.S., where the platform has a very small market share, mostly because its biggest user, Nokia, has a tiny presence in North America.

"It's fair to say we've just scratched the surface in North America with a Symbian presence," Williams said.

The speakers were concerned about some other issues, too. Danny Winokur, senior director for business development of Adobe's Flash platform, wondered if Symbian's open, collaborative model would allow it to innovate as quickly as an individual company might.

Jai Jaisimha, vice president of mobile for AOL, worried about different versions of Symbian emerging for different handset makers, fragmenting the market for applications.

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