Symbian Completes The Largest Move To Open Source In History

The once and still dominant mobile OS moves to open source to better compete with Adroid, iPhone and others. What do they really have to do to win?

In the largest migration from a proprietary to an open source model ever, the most popular OS for mobile phones (over 330 million phones) in the world is now open source. The Symbian mobile OS which powers most Nokia, as well as other phones is now open source. That means it is free for anyone to use, edit, change or just view. The migration was actually finished ahead of schedule by a few months.

Though Apple's iPhone and Google's Android are the media darlings, Symbian still outranks them in terms of phones in service using the OS. But when Nokia bought Symbian a few years back they made a decision to change the model and open source the software. They established the Symbian Foundation as the keeper of the code. Of course the Symbian/Nokia folks will tell you this was all planned well before Google released Android as an open source OS. In fact they claim it was even before the iPhone.

Do we need another open source mobile OS? Between Android and then closed source Apple and Windows, not to mention the Pre, is there still room for another mobile OS? What is different about Symbian, open source or not?

According to these two articles in Wired and the BBC, there is plenty to set Symbian apart. First of all, Symbian claims that only about 1/3 of the Android code base is really open. They have a much higher percentage of code that is really open. Also where Google decides what is in or out of the official Android code base, the Symbian foundation will do everything it can to have a wider base of contributors making decisions on where the official version is going. They will also release a road map with features and solicit suggestions and changes from the community as well.

This is another big victory for the open source movement. I think we will start seeing Symbian OS showing up in tablets and other devices besides traditional phones. It is a tried and true product, so developers and device manufacturers should not hesitate to use it.

Ultimately though two things will determine the ultimate success of Symbian as an open source mobile OS:

1. What kind of App Store will they have? They may not need an iTunes or Google type of set up, but developers developing apps that give it at least parity with the other platforms is a must. If you can't run twitter, Facebook and all of the other popular apps, it won't make a difference if it is open source or not.

2. Will people start fearing that Google is too powerful. Even if Android is open, there are many who think Google has the potential to be too much of a big brother. If handset manufacturers don't want to compete head on with Google's own brand of phone, they may look to Symbian as a worthy alternative.

I don't think that Symbian's move to open source is some marketing stunt. I think moving to an OSS model offers Symbian some solid benefits they are going to need to compete. But moving to open source in and of itself is not enough. Now we need to see a community form behind it. Let the innovation begin!

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