Nokia Takes it Up a Notch

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Last week I wrote about the competition between the iPhone and Android platforms. This made no mention of Symbian, because I couldn't see any reason why it would figure very largely in the coming battle for the smartphone market, even though it was being open sourced by Nokia. This, however, may well change things:

Nokia has completed a EUR 500 million loan agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB). The five-year loan will be used to part-finance software research and development (R&D) projects Nokia is undertaking during 2009-2011 to make Symbian-based smartphones more competitive.

Nokia envisages that the R&D activities supported by this loan will also benefit the work of the Symbian Foundation and its development of open-source software for mobile devices.The Symbian Foundation is an independent, non-profit entity being set up by Nokia and its industry partners to develop a unified software platform with a single user interface framework. As previously communicated, the foundation is expected to start operations before the end of the first half 2009.

It's not clear from this how much of that 500 million euros is earmarked for Symbian, but the implication is that a fair amount will. It's amazing how a dollop of dosh can reshape the smartphone landscape. It means that the Symbian Foundation can start to employ some serious hacking talent to make the open source code a viable competitor to Android, and hence iPhone.

Nokia's announcement, coupled with its earlier decision to take Symbian open source, is really good news for both the world of mobiles and free software. It means that the smartphone sector will become even more hotly contested, with two of the three main platforms open source. It also makes the probability that Microsoft's offering will thrive here even less likely. The only things it really had going for it were the brand and Microsoft's money; Nokia's move reduces the importance of the latter, and in the light of the diminishing respect that the Windows name commands (hello, Vista), even the former is questionable.

The benefit for free software is considerable. Code re-use lies at the heart of open source, which means that Symbian's work can feed into the larger ecosystem. However, there's a big caveat to that: Symbian's code will be released under the Eclipse licence, which is incompatible with the GNU GPL, so it's unlikely we'll see much cross-fertilisation between it and Android, say. That may be one reason that Symbian chose Eclipse over the GPL.

This clash of the licences is a problem, and is likely to become more of one as projects using the Eclipse licence increase in number and flourish alongside those based on the GPL. I predict this issue will move to the forefront of concerns in the free software world as the growing divergence between the two ecosystems increases.