Nokiasoft: Who are the Open Source Winners and Losers?

The dust has barely settled on the announcement of the major deal between Nokia and Microsoft, weird possibilities have been and gone, and we are all still pondering the implications. One of the key concerns for readers of this blog will be:...

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The dust has barely settled on the announcement of the major deal between Nokia and Microsoft, weird possibilities have been and gone, and we are all still pondering the implications. One of the key concerns for readers of this blog will be: what are the effects on free software? And: who will be the open source losers – and winners? What follows is just a first sketch of what the eventual answers may be: expect them to be refined and possibly reversed as more details and reactions emerge.

Symbian

The clearest loser in the deal is Symbian: it is as dead as the proverbial Monty Python parrot. Here's what the fateful Nokia press release announcing the deal has to say on the subject:

With Nokia's planned move to Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform, Symbian becomes a franchise platform, leveraging previous investments to harvest additional value. This strategy recognizes the opportunity to retain and transition the installed base of 200 million Symbian owners. Nokia expects to sell approximately 150 million more Symbian devices in the years to come.

Can you believe that they let this stuff through? "Symbian becomes a franchise platform, leveraging previous investments to harvest additional value": in other words, vampire-like, Nokia will suck the Symbian platform dry, expending the minimum effort possible, in order to "harvest" - what, like organs? - "additional value."

It doesn't matter if some of that "harvested value" will be supplying low-cost phones to the Mashable%28Mashable%29&utm_content=Google+Reader>developing world - undoubtedly, an important task. The fact remains that Symbian now has a corporate sword of Damocles hanging over it, and it's just a matter of time before it falls.

It's true that, being open source, Symbian can live on – the code is out there. But that's going to be hard when the manufacturer of its primary platform no longer wants anything to do with it. The best it can hope for is porting to other hardware that might be longer lived than Nokia's models.

In retrospect, Symbian was probably already doomed when this was revealed last year:

Following a strategy review, the board of the Symbian Foundation has today decided to transition the role of the non-profit organisation. The foundation will become a legal entity responsible for licensing software and other intellectual property, such as the Symbian trademark. Nokia has committed to make the future development of the Symbian platform available to the ecosystem via an alternative direct and open model.

You do not shut down the community side of an open source project if you expect it to thrive and grow deep into the future....

MeeGo

First, let's remind ourselves where MeeGo came from:

MeeGo is an open source, Linux project which brings together the Moblin project, headed up by Intel, and Maemo, by Nokia, into a single open source activity. MeeGo integrates the experience and skills of two significant development ecosystems, versed in communications and computing technologies. The MeeGo project believes these two pillars form the technical foundations for next generation platforms and usages in the mobile and device platforms space.

Now, that's an interesting formulation: "these two pillars form the technical foundations". So, what would happen to those technical foundations – purely hypothetically, you understand – if one of those pillars started crumbling? You know, a bit like this part of the Nokia announcement:

Under the new strategy, MeeGo becomes an open-source, mobile operating system project. MeeGo will place increased emphasis on longer-term market exploration of next-generation devices, platforms and user experiences. Nokia still plans to ship a MeeGo-related product later this year.

"Exploration of next-generation devices, platforms and user experiences": yeah, that sounds like a really deep commitment to the platform for the long term.... So, even if MeeGo is not quite in Dead Parrot Land yet, I predict it'll be there after a couple of final squawks exploring those next-generation devices, platforms and user experiences.

Qt

Worryingly, there's no mention of Qt in the main press release. But fear not, there's an entire blog post from Daniel Kihlberg, Director Qt Ecosystem, full of comforting words like this:

The retention of Nokia's 200 million Symbian-users is vital and Nokia has targeted sales of 150 million more Symbian-devices in years to come. To achieve that Nokia needs to continue the modernization of Symbian in Qt – to keep existing consumers engaged and to attract new customers, either upgrading from existing Symbian devices to Qt enabled devices or entirely new to Nokia.

So Qt will be fine because of the millions of Symbian users that it will have...for a few more years, until Nokia finally consigns Symbian to the scrap heap? Whoops, not so consoling, that. How about this, then?

Nokia also announced it will ship its first MeeGo-related device in 2011, which will rely on the Qt ecosystem – and then will continue with MeeGo as an open source project for future disruption. Nokia can't afford to be behind the next disruption again and Qt can play an important role in making sure it isn't.

So, Qt will be fine because of the MeeGo-related device that will ship at some unspecified point, and will then continue "for future disruption". Except, as I've already suggested, this is marketing-speak for "we will let MeeGo die a quiet death in the corner in the hope that no one notices."

Surprisingly, perhaps, I don't think Qt will be joining Symbian and MeeGo as a Dead Parrot; indeed, continuing the Monty Python theme, I'd say it's more a question of "I'm not dead yet." For Qt is, of course, a key element of KDE, which is doing very nicely thank you, and certainly doesn't depend on the commitment or otherwise of Nokia (luckily). People will continue to hack on Qt because by doing so they can make KDE better – which is what they are passionate about.

Indeed, you could argue that Qt might benefit from Nokia leaving it alone: it will allow Qt development to concentrate on improving those things that matter to KDE, rather than Nokia's corporate priorities. And if the eventual owner of Qt (whoever that might be, assuming Nokia eventually sells it, as I think likely) starts messing about – hello Oracle – then there's always the option of a fork, which in the wake of LibreOffice has become a much more respectable option.

Android

The big one. At first glance, Nokia's decision to put all of its eggs in the Microsoft basket looks pretty disastrous for Android. Microsoft's mobile strategy will receive a huge boost from Nokia – even if, as many think, this may well destroy Nokia as any kind of leader in this sector, rather than just a maker of bespoke hardware for Redmond. But there's an interesting angle that might counterbalance that to some extent.

It all depends on what exactly this means:

Nokia will help drive and define the future of Windows Phone. Nokia will contribute its expertise on hardware design, language support, and help bring Windows Phone to a larger range of price points, market segments and geographies.

Is this just meaningless marketing fluff, a sop to the hurt pride of the Nokians? Or will Nokia really have a privileged role to play in the development of Windows Phone?

If it doesn't, then arguably it will sink even quicker than it might otherwise, reduced to peddling whatever Microsoft produces. But if it does, what will all the other handset manufacturers think of being relegated to play second fiddle to the Finnish company? Could it be that gaining such a position would actually encourage others to shift their emphasis to other platforms – like Android? As I say, it all depends on what exactly that phrase means, but it's an interesting possibility that paradoxically might still make the tie-up mildly beneficial for Android in the long term.

Open source

There's one other aspect of the Nokia-Microsoft deal that may adversely affect not just Android, but the whole of open source. Whatever its support for open source projects, Nokia has certainly not been on the side of the angels when it comes to software patents, as this FFII page reminds us. In its new role as Microsoft vassal – which is pretty much what the relationship will be, however it might be dressed up – there's a clear likelihood that Nokia's many patents will be turned against Android, which becomes the clear enemy number one for the mobile combo. Some of the patents might even impact directly the underlying open source code in the Android stack.

Worrying, there have already been pronouncements on precisely this topic:

Elop said: "I'm not going to make any specific comments. But it is the case and was absolutely a topic of discussion, that Microsoft plus Nokia has a remarkably strong IP portfolio, and we will use that appropriately with the context of our ecosystem.

"Ensuring that the value we create with our patents, we can defend from those who may take advantage."

Since "take advantage" is simply patent lawyer-speak for "uses a technology that is even vaguely similar to something that we patented a few years back using a completely general formulation that could mean anything", this is clearly a warning to all competitors in the mobile space that they are about to be on the receiving end of yet more completely insane patent attacks.

Beyond that, the Nokia-Microsoft axis will doubtless exert a negative effect on European technology policy: despite the troubles that have brought it to this humbling agreement with Microsoft, Nokia remains a big European company with a lot of economic and political clout. Given the undoubted power of the company in Helsinki and Brussels, this could be very harmful for all free software activity in the European Union bearing in mind the new leadership and corporate direction.

Had Nokia chosen to work more closely with Google, it would presumably have adopted a more pro-free software approach, since the latter would have formed the underpinning for its entire range. Since that is not to be, and its current open source projects are likely to die or fork off, it seems that this strange new Nokiasoft beast probably come to be regarded as a very real threat to open source at all levels.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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