On Symbian, Communities, and Motivation

(This is an updated repost of an article originally published on OSBR)

I have followed with great interest the evolution of the Symbian open source project – from its start, through its tentative evolution, and up to its closure this month. This process of closing down is accompanied by the claim that: “the current governance structure for the Symbian platform – the foundation – is no longer appropriate.”

It seems strange. Considering the great successes of Gnome, KDE, Eclipse, and many other groups, it is curious that Symbian was not able to follow along the same path. I have always been a great believer in OSS consortia, because I think that the sharing of research and development is a main strength of the open source model, and I think that consortia are among the best ways to implement R&D sharing efficiently.

However, to work well, Consortia need to provide benefits in terms of efficiency or visibility to all the actors that participate in them, not only to the original developer group. For Nokia, we know that one of the reasons to open up Symbian was to reduce the porting effort. As Eric Raymond reports, “they did a cost analysis and concluded they couldn’t afford the engineering hours needed to port Symbian to all the hardware they needed to support. (I had this straight from a Symbian executive, face-to-face, around 2002).”

But to get other people to contribute their work, you need an advantage for them as well. What can this advantage be? For Eclipse, most of the companies developing their own integrated development environment (IDE) found it economically sensible to drop their own work and contribute to Eclipse instead. It allowed them to quickly reduce their maintenance and development costs while increasing their quality as well. The Symbian foundation should have done the same thing, but apparently missed the mark, despite having a large number of partners and members. Why?

The reason is time and focus. The Eclipse foundation had, for quite some time, basically used only IBM resources to provide support and development. In a similar way, it took WebKit (which is not quite a foundation, but follows the same basic model) more than two years before it started receiving substantial contributions, as can be found here.

And WebKit is much, much smaller than Symbian and Eclipse. For Symbian, I would estimate that it would require at least three or four years before such a project could start to receive important external contributions. That is, unless it is substantially re-engineered so that the individual parts (some of which are quite interesting and advanced, despite the claims that Symbian is a dead project) can be removed and reused by other projects as well. This is usually the starting point for long-term cooperation. Some tooling was also not in place from the beginning; the need for a separate compiler chain – one that was not open source and that in many aspect was not as advanced as open source ones – was an additional stumbling block that delayed participation.

Another problem was focus. More or less, anyone understood that for a substantial period of time, Symbian would be managed and developed mainly by Nokia. And Nokia made a total mess of differentiating what part of the platform was real, what was a stopgap for future changes, what was end-of-life, and what was the future. Who would invest, in the long term, in a platform where the only entity that could gain from it was not even that much committed to it? And before flaming me for this comment, let me say that I am a proud owner of a Nokia device, I love most Nokia products, and I think that Symbian still could have been a contender, especially through a speedier transition to Qt for the user interface. But the long list of confusing announcements and delays, changes in plans, and lack of focus on how to beat the competitors like iOS and Android clearly reduced the willingness of commercial partners to invest in the venture.

Which is a pity – Symbian still powers most phones in the world and can still enter the market with some credibility. But this later announcement sounds like a death knell. Obtain the source code through a DVD or USB key? You must be kidding. Do you really think that setting up a webpage with the code and preserving a read-only Mercurial server would be a too much of a cost? The only thing that it shows is that Nokia stopped believing in an OSS Symbian.

(Update: after the change of CEO and the extraordinary change in strategy, it is clear that the reason for ditching the original EPL code was related to its inherent patent grant, that still provides a safeguard against Nokia patents embedded in the original Symbian code. There is a new release of Symbian under a different, non-OSS license; the original code is preserved in this sourceforge project, while Tyson Key preserved the incubation projects and many ancillary documentation like wiki pages at this Google code project.)

A full copy of the original EPL


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