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The End of the Symbian Foundation

The end of the Symbian Foundation was in sight before it ever began.

[Caveat Lector: I was one of the consultants Symbian Ltd. called in to help with early planning towards the Symbian Foundation.] It’s been almost six months since the Symbian Foundation announced it was shutting its doors. Nokia will announce their new SymbianOS licensing mechanisms by the end of the month. I believe the Symbian Foundation ended for two reasons. First, Nokia kept too tight a grip on the SymbianOS code for fear of its own schedules, making themselves first amongst “equals” and drying up any other real support. Second, the Symbian Foundation was created so heavy as to be operationally too expensive from its first day of operations. When Nokia first announced they were buying out the rest of Symbian Ltd. and creating the Symbian Foundation, it made perfect sense. Unfortunately, what was delivered after months of planning was an organization that was far removed from successful examples of open source collaborative development through foundations. The toughest problem was that Nokia would hold the keys to the kingdom and publish into the Symbian Foundation from which all other primary members would pull software. This is control. Not cooperation. It’s “we know best”. I’m sure the control was appropriate in the executive mindset. Handsets ship rigorously twice a year (“Dads and Grads” in June, and the Winter Holiday season) and Symbian Ltd was a machine at meeting those annual cycles. Disrupting Symbian Ltd. in an acquisition put the pipeline in jeopardy, unless it was locked in place inside Nokia. Then Nokia could publish into the Symbian Foundation. This would obviously not thrill the other handset manufacturing “partners”. It potentially put their ship cycles at risk. Indeed, from an analysis over at VisionMobile this was an ongoing issue over the years for SymbianOS OEMs and Nokia control points. It would have been the last straw for the other OEMs. It’s really too bad. Nokia has already demonstrated its abilities to work in the broad open source world. They understood being inclusive and developing an architecture of participation through the early Maemo work. Somewhere along the way they lost sight of how things work in the open source community. Something in the corporate DNA seems to react badly to trading control for influence. Decisions are made and through a series of apparently independent rational steps one ends up in the worst possible scenario. The other part of the problem was the structure of the Symbian Foundation itself. Symbian Ltd was roughly a thousand employees. Most would become Nokia employees, but Nokia chose to bootstrap the Symbian Foundation with almost two hundred employees! This is breathtaking. The next biggest open source software foundation in existence is the Eclipse Foundation with on the order of twenty employees, so literally an order of magnitude smaller. The Linux Foundation structures itself to run very lean on head count (making used of loaned CTOs etc.). The Outercurve Foundation runs even leaner than the Linux Foundation. So a back of the envelop swipe based on 200 employees is a staffing budget alone of US$25 million. While the original partners would have thought this a dawdle compared to the original royalty fees to Symbian Ltd., that’s not the way corporate budgets work in the margin-intense world of handsets. COGS doesn’t simply migrate into the marketing budget at a discount. My original prediction was members would begin dropping out in the third year. I was equally guilty of looking at the issues individually without seeing how they connected with the loss of control over the software that some handset manufacturers clearly felt. While the VisionMobile analysis concludes that SymbianOS will be with us for some time to come, (and this doesn’t actually contradict a current VisionMobile analysis of the recent Nokia and Microsoft pact) it still feels like Nokia has fumbled an incredible set of opportunities in the mobile industry. As Nokia pushes forward along a new path, it will be fascinating to see how things pan out now that they’ve made a decision 180 degrees in the opposite direction and ceded control of the OS to a “partner” that has historically delayed ship dates and dropped features. It seems the worst of times for Nokia are yet to come.

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