Wednesday, June 25, 2008 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

Not One, Not Two, but THREE Competing Open Source Mobile Operating Systems

Global handset manufacturing giant Nokia has purchased the shares they didn't already own in Symbian, Ltd., the company formed in 1998 as a partnership among Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Psion and the developer of the Symbian mobile operating system, by far the world's leading OS for "smart mobile" phones with 67% of the market, followed by Microsoft on 13%, with RIM on 10% (source).

But wait, there's more (per Engadget)!

Here's where it gets interesting, though: rather than taking Symbian's intellectual private for Nokia's own benefit, the goods will be turned over to the Symbian Foundation, a nonprofit whose sole goal will be the advancement of the Symbian platform in its many flavors. Motorola and Sony Ericsson have signed up to contribute UIQ assets, while NTT DoCoMo (which uses Symbian-based wares in a number of its phones) will be donating code as well.

Other Symbian Foundation members include Texas Instruments, Vodafone, Samsung, LG, and AT&T (yep, the same AT&T that currently sells precisely one Symbian-based phone), so things could get interesting. The move clearly seems to be a preemptive strike against Google's Open Handset Alliance, LiMo, and other collaborative efforts forming around the globe with the goal of standardizing smartphone operating systems; the writing was on the wall, and Symbian didn't want to miss the train. Total cash outlay for the move will run Nokia roughly €264 million -- about $410 million in yankee currency.

Other reports note that the Symbian Foundation will eventually take Symbian open source, and that this move is as much as response to Apple's closed iPhone platform as it is to Gogole's open Android and LiMo platforms. (Although it is intriguing to note that AT&T, Apple's exclusive U.S. partner for the iPhone, is among the backers of the new Symbian Foundation, perhaps indicating that even AT&T is hedging its bets.)

The fact that we will soon see three open source platforms (counting Google's Android and LiMo) competing for market share provides yet another measure of the exceptionally high degree of competition in the wireless industry.

Even FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, hardly a "regulatory skeptic," has recognized the significance of this aspect of wireless competition and widespread availability of wireless carrier choice in his recent statements indicating his intent to dismiss Skype's Petition to impose open access requirements a la the FCC's 1968 Carterfone decision, calling "wireless ... the poster child for competition" and noting that "95 percent of the people in the U.S. can choose form at least three wireless operators competing to offer them service."

Cumulatively, the increased competitiveness--and openness-of the wireless industry mitigates strongly against recent proposals for Carterfone-style requirements (see Tim Wu's June 2007 piece); banning exclusive relationships between handset manufacturers and wireless carriers, as my colleague Barabara Esbin and I noted in our recent paper (PDF); heavy-handed regulation of early termination fees, as dicussed by Barbara (PDF) and other attempts to impose unnecessary regulations on an industry that is already the most competitive within the FCC's purview and one in which open standards should facilitate continued innovation.

Nokia's move is, in some respects, reminiscent of AOL's 2003 decision to create the Mozilla Foundation. If Symbian achieves even a fraction of Mozilla's success with Firefox in growing a developer community that can build a strong product, the pace of wireless innovation could increase still further.

posted by Berin Szoka @ 5:56 PM | Communications , Software , Wireless