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Symbian lays foundations for open sourceMatthew Aslett, October 21, 2008 @ 9:52 am ET
What happens between a company announcing its intention to license its code using an open source license and the resulting project being launched?
Mostly the answer involves a whole lot of legal discussions as the intellectual property and licensing issues are ironed out and the processes and structures are put in place to support the new project.
These sort of arrangements might be fascinating to those of us that study open source development and licensing models but they don’t necessarily make for dynamic conference discussions, if today’s Symbian Smartphone Show was anything to go by.
To be fair to those involved it can’t be helped that the legal hurdles needed to announce the official formation of the Symbian Foundation won’t be completed until later in the year.
But it was a shame that the eagerness of executives and developers to hear about the plans for the new open source project could not be matched by the ability of the presenters to talk openly about their intentions.
It certainly wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm on the presenters’ part, although the repeated necessary legal qualifications seemed to put an unfortunate brake on proceedings despite evident interest in the potential for soon-to-be open source mobile operating system.
The need to maintain the interest levels of would-be Symbian contributors is not lost on those involved in creating the Symbian Foundation as developers were repeatedly reminded that they could begin preparing for the new operating system today, safe in the knowledge that current APIs and the S60 compatibility layer would still be supported when the code is released some time next year.
There was also a lot of talk, of course, about the potential benefits of the soon-to-be open source Symbian code base. While a lot of these have been heard before in relation to other open source projects it is interesting to see an open source community being created in front of you. These then, were some of the major talking points:
- Business drivers
Speed is the principle proposition of the Symbian Foundation, according to Symbian CEO Nigel Clifford, who noted that a common platform for mobile operating system development would reduce cost and effort for all concerned. It was noted a number of times that the project was being done for sound business reasons as economic drivers make it difficult to charge for software and most vendors have realised that the best way to make money money is through ancillary services and other products.
The maturity of the code and the partner ecosystem was noted repeatedly, with Symbian being in a position to claim that the open source Symbian OS will offer the best of both worlds – freely available software based on a proven, mature and stable code base.
Much was made of the fact that the chosen Eclipse Public License will enable developers to collaborate on the core platform and user interface framework while differentiating on the extensions that add value such as user experience, applications, time to market and hardware support. Meanwhile Kevin Gunn, software product manager at Texas Instruments, noted that over time there would be less of a reliance on the expertise of Symbian developers and engineers, creating opportunities for third parties in terms of services.
Fragmentation is a concern for any open source project and is especially so given the potential for vendors to differentiate. In that regard it is essential for the Foundation to prove the value of collaboration by continuing to churn out updates that enable the ecosystem to differentiate, noted Patrick Olsson, VP and head of software at Sony Ericsson. David Rivas, VP of technology management for S60 at Nokia was confident that if the foundation did do that the value that the platform provides for collaboration would prevent fragmentation.
Of course no one likes to talk about the risks too much, but the presenters did a good job of acknowledging the scale of the project at hand, as over 20 million lines of code will be released over the next two years. Patrick Olsson admitted that for some members of the Symbian ecosystem there will need to be a change of culture to recognise the elements of the platform that are now a commodity and avoid attempting to compete on them.
- Due process
As David Rivas noted, the biggest risk was in setting up the organisation to manage the project itself. He noted that the employees of foundation members will be responsible for development and engineering but that employees of the foundation itself will not get involved in development. Foundation employees (who will number 100-150) will be responsible for admin, foundation management, support, marketing and software management and will corral the development teams to create the roadmap without getting involved in directing development projects themselves.
There will be a series of councils covering architecture, feature roadmapping, user interface and release, although those again will be staffed by the employees of foundation members, rather than the employees of the foundation. The ownership of individual software packages will default, for the initial stages at least, to the original owner, who will be responsible for its development direction.
The choice of the Eclipse license is seen as important in enabling differentiation, as noted above, but the transition will not be immediate. The official launch of the Symbian Foundation in the first half of 2009 will see the code launched under the Symbian Foundation License, which will enable code to be shared only amongst Foundation members. As the IP licensing issues are ironed out the code will move to the EPL over the next two years.
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