Symbian deal will open up mobile platform market

Competition heats up in the open mobile platform arena

The global battle to control the smarts in your smartphone escalated this week when some of the combatants redeployed their forces in two big moves.

First, Nokia announced this week that it had agreed to purchase Symbian and open source some of the code in the widely used Symbian operating system for mobile phones. Nokia's partners in the original Symbian joint venture, including Sony Ericsson, Motorola, and now AT&T and Samsung, are launching a foundation to unite all of the current platforms based on the Symbian universe, including the S60, UIQ and MOAP(S) mobile platforms.

Second, the Linux Phone Standards (LiPS) Forum will cease operations by July, folding its work and its membership into the LiMo (Linux Mobile) Foundation. The intent, says LiPS General Manager Bill Weinberg, is to accelerate development of unified open source platform for mobile phones.

These two actions have highlighted the differences and similarities among the major contenders for software running on a billion mobile phones: Symbian, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, a growing mobile Linux movement, but also the upstart Google-led Android project and two wild cards: the Apple iPhone, and Research in Motion's BlackBerry.

LiMo's work is similar to that of the Android project, under the aegis of the Open Handset Alliance, unveiled last year. Android, too, is creating a Linux-based software stack for mobile devices. Many analysts said the Symbian open source effort was a direct shot across Android's bow.

"There is no question that this is a direct challenge to Android and its open-source roots," says Jack Gold, the founder and principal analyst for J. Gold Associates. "Given that a number of platform companies who are founders of the Symbian Foundation are also part of Google's Android program, it will be interesting to see if the commitment to Android remains as firm as when Android was first announced."

Mobile Linux consolidates

While consolidation is perhaps inevitable, there is plenty of room for more than one consolidated Linux project to make headway in the mobile phone market, experts said.

"I think [mobile] Linux is consolidating rapidly behind two major frameworks with similar solutions in terms of market presence," says Stuart Carlaw, vice president of mobile and wireless for ABI Research. "The vertical fragmentation has now gone, and you are left with LiMo and OHA [Open Handset Alliance] really running at the forefront of development." A few other Linux mobile solutions will find specific niches, he says, such as the Maemo platform, which powers Nokia's family of N800 Internet tablets, or the emerging class of mobile Internet devices, or MIDs.

LiMo released the first version of its code in March, followed just weeks later by the unveiling of almost 20 handsets, from LG Electronics, Motorola, NEC and others.

Recent reports say Android phones won't appear until late 2008. While the Symbian operating system currently is the dominant mobile platform, the open source code won't be available until 2009.

"Nokia clearly recognized that this was the only way for Symbian to continue to compete," says Linux Foundation COO Dan Kohn. "Symbian still has the challenge of building a large development community, enabling broader device support and keeping up with other major Linux efforts, such as Intel's Moblin, Google's Android and the LiMo Foundation, which are starting with fresh technology that has developer support across the entire pantheon of computing."

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Brad Reed

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