Nokia's Not-so-cute Qt Move

When I was reviewing the fall-out from Nokia's decision to stake its future on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 system, I mentioned parenthetically that I thought it likely the Qt division would be sold. It turns out I was right, although Nokia has...

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When I was reviewing the fall-out from Nokia's decision to stake its future on Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 system, I mentioned parenthetically that I thought it likely the Qt division would be sold. It turns out I was right, although Nokia has chosen to do this in an unusual way:

The success of Qt has in part been due to a successful dual-license model, providing open LGPL and commercial license alternatives which have enabled a dynamic community of developers in 70 industries to drive a rapid evolution of the Qt cross-platform application and UI framework. The Qt Commercial licensing business is growing and has around 3500 companies, whose development and use of Qt benefits the whole community.

Many organizations which want to use Qt for their business applications choose commercial licenses, for a variety of reasons. These include restrictions in using open source licensed software in industries such as defense & aerospace, or the need to provide product warranties & indemnities such as in the medical device industry. Others choose a commercial relationship for access to Qt professional support and services to ensure successful development of their projects.

However, these professional services are not core business activities for Nokia, so since the introduction of the LGPL license for Qt in 2009 we have been actively working to grow the number of companies providing Qt services. In 2010 we began the search for a company we could work with to serve the commercial licensees in the Qt community. We have now concluded that search and chosen to work with Digia. As a consequence, Digia will acquire the Qt Commercial software licensing and professional services business from Nokia, with the transaction expected to close by the end of March 2011.

Digia will also be writing code, it seems:

Digia will invest significant resources in the ongoing development of Qt as a commercial framework. In particular, their plans include emphasizing Qt in the desktop and embedded environments and exploring new support models and feature requests.

The mention of desktop would be unalloyed good news were it not for the fact that the paragraph above specifically says that Digia is developing "Qt as a commercial framework". The big question is how – or if – this will feed back into the LGPL version. After all, Digia is responsible for "licensing and professional services": it would seem to have no direct interest in pushing forward the open source version.

There's more detail about what exactly Nokia will be doing in the Digia press release on the deal:

Qt continues to be an important technology for Nokia and it is critical that Qt's growth and success can continue. While Nokia will continue to invest in developing Qt as a cross-platform framework for mobile, desktop and embedded segments, focusing on open source development and expansion, we wanted a partner who can drive the commercial licensing and services business around Qt.

That seems to confirm the complete split between Digia handling the commercial side, and Nokia the open source part. Again, that raises issues about how Digia's contributions will feed into the open source side. Worse, that last quotation begins with what is essentially a premise: "Qt continues to be an important technology for Nokia and it is critical that Qt's growth and success can continue." Supposing it stops being so important?

As I wrote before, the underlying logic seems to be "Nokia obviously needs Qt to thrive because it uses it in its Symbian phones". But Nokia itself has admitted: "Symbian becomes a franchise platform, leveraging previous investments to harvest additional value." In other words, it has no long-term future other than to be "harvested".

However, if Symbian has no future at Nokia, surely that means Qt has no future either – unless you really believe that MeeGo stands any chance of being developed into a serious product, in which case I have a bridge you may be interested in acquiring....

And if Qt has no future, why on earth would Nokia continue to invest money and people in producing the open source version that would be commercialised by someone else? Surely it is bound to pass the open source side across to Digia at some point, or maybe to some other party, although it's hard to see who would want to pick up the non-commercial part of Qt when the money-making aspect resides elsewhere.

All-in-all, then, this neat and superficially plausible split between commercial and open source looks bad news for the latter, unless Digia acquires or is given the copyright in the code, and then devotes plenty of resources to the open source side.

As I noted in my previous post: "there's always the option of a fork." Sadly, in the wake of this latest development, I think members of the Qt community should now be seriously planning for such an eventuality if they want the open source Qt project to thrive and not dwindle into an unregarded and fossilised appendage of the commercial versions.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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